Here's a thing about free speech...
Everyone likes to say
they're in favour of free speech. After all, no-one has likely ever won over a crowd by saying "I'm against free speech."
But virtually no-one is actually in favour of free speech.
What does free speech mean? Actual, real, truly free speech, not "well, I'll call it free speech but what I mean is somewhat regulated speech"? It means one cannot be punished by the state for what one says (using "says" in a general sense to convey all forms of expression, not merely the physical act of speaking).
It means many (and possibly all) types of fraud cannot be punished (by the state, which should be read into ever expression of "punished" in this paragraph). It means distributing or obtaining child porn cannot be punished (although one could likely still punish the maker). It means distributing classified information cannot be punished. It means the sort of treason that Robert Hanssen
or Aldrich Ames
indulged in cannot be punished. It means that most forms of stalking cannot be punished. It means that death threats cannot be punished. It means that copyright violations cannot be punished. It means that most forms of public order and public nuisance offences cannot be punished (not that they'd count as offences to begin with). And that's just an obvious few.
I suspect there are very few, if any, people who think those offences shouldn't be punished. But they are all simply people expressing themselves. They are all acts of speech. Robert Hanssen simply told the Russians things. Someone who collects pictures and videos of child porn from the creator and then distributes them to a third party is simply expressing themselves. Someone who sends a death threat is simply speaking. Someone who constantly phones someone else and breaths down the phone at them is expressing themselves. Someone who deliberately lies to you about some financial transaction for their own profit and your loss is simply committing an act of expression.
Once you accept that it's right for the state to restrict and punish these acts of expression then you're no longer arguing about whether speech should be free or not. You're arguing about how much restriction is allowed. And that's a different question. You've already decided some things are more important than free speach... now the only question is what
falls into that category.
The general concept in such cases is "harm", largely aping John Stuart Mill's harm principle ("The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."). But "harm" is a nebulous and poorly defined word that means basically whatever one wants it to. Do we restrict it to physical harm? What about fraud then? And with our greater understanding of human psychology and the brain in general can we not say that physical harm is caused even when the victim is not physically attacked? The UK law accepts this in part; causing a person to suffer a recognised psychiatric condition can constitute actual bodily harm. We know that stress can have negative physical consequences... doesn't that constitute harm?
So what does actually constitute "harm" and where do we draw the line when it comes to speech?
Now, in this case we're not strictly speaking about governments and the law, we're talking about people in general and morality more than simply the law itself. If someone continuously insults and mocks me or someone I care about in a deeply personal and hateful way, is there a point when it becomes "right" (or at leak "ok") for me to respond by punching them? And let's remember, punching them won't stop them simply coming the next day to do it again unless I've made them terrified of me and terrified of the consequences. What happens if they take their punch, come back the next day and do it again. Then again. Then again. Then again. Then again. Is there a point where it becomes morally right (or at least "ok") for me to do more than simply punch them? To do something more serious.
As people who have followed me across PROC may note I'm pretty far to the "keep as much speech free as possible" side of things. But let's for a moment see if we can put together an at least somewhat coherent argument as to why there may
be a moral case for one of the most horrific assaults on what we consider free speech in recent years, the vile Charlie Hebdo murders (which the Pope was obviously referencing).
Many people here have noted that if someone was to insult someone's child, that second person may be (morally) justified in punching them. As Kythia has noted, religion is in incredibly important and personal part of some people's lives... in some cases more important to them then their children (look at all the stories of families that have fallen apart after a child rejects their parents religion). An insult to the religion they hold so deeply and personally is at least as an insult to their child. And even as someone who has no issue with the sort of cartoons Charlie Hebdo published I can fully accept they were insulting; frequently I suspect that was the main point. Now, one can certainly argue that there is a difference between a punch and a massacre with automatic weapons... and you'd be right. But then one is no longer saying that the attack on the Charlie Hebdo staff was wrong in principle, you're saying that they took it so far. That if the perpetrators had gone to the office and beaten up the staff (or at least punched them) then that would have been morally OK.
I assume we all see the issue?
Law frequently uses a "reasonable man" test; what would a reasonable man have thought/done in the circumstances? Self-defence in the UK seems an appropriate example as it includes circumstances where one hasn't yet been attacked (but one reasonably thinks it will follow). In essence there is a too part test as to whether self-defence is allowed. First, was the use of force necessary in the circumstances and secondly, was the force used reasonable in the circumstances? Both of these tests have a subjective element (as they are based on what the person knew/felt at the time) but also an objective one (would a reasonable man have thought force necessary and would a reasonable man have thought that was the right amount of force to use). For example, if a large, scary looking man had no intention to attack me but had spent the last 10 minutes telling me how he was going to "give me a slap", then aggressively came towards me (albeit with the intention to "just" intimidate me) and I punched him in the nose then I'd probably have satisfied both parts. If I shot him in the head? I may well struggle to fulfill the second. If a guy brushed past me, mentioned that I was starting to piss him off and I punched him? I'd likely struggle with the first.
Shall we take that away from law and return it to morals and insulting talk? Because I think a good case can be made that the same logic should apply. Would a reasonable person think that force was justified as a result on the insult? And was the degree of force used reasonable? As above, people in this thread have noted that it may be reasonable to return insults with force if someone insults your child. Would the same apply to a religion you care about just as (if not more) deeply? And what degree of force is a reasonable response? I rather suspect that none would say cold-blooded execution... but, again, once we get to that point we're arguing degrees.
But let us look at this from another angle.
People can, and do, get offended... and very offended... by pretty innocuous things (for the purposes of this let us assume that they are acting in good faith when they say they are offended rather than putting on an act for attention/money). Recently there was an example of someone making a joke about otherkin (specifically people who believe they're really toasters) and people were offended on the basis that they saw it as an attack on trans-people (or at the very least aping previous attacks on trans-people). TERF's get insulted by the very idea of trans-women being considered anything other than "men in skirts". We've seen people consider beards offensive, sitting with your legs open offensive, wearing a first-nations style headdress offensive... hell, I've already mentioned otherkin, so I may as well point out that some otherkin get deeply offended if anyone doesn't take their view that they're actually a dragon seriously or uses the wrong pronoun to refer to them. Some people get offended at anything that doesn't present the USA as the best, some people get offended at something that does the same for Russia etc etc.
What chilling effect on speech would there be if the fact that someone, somewhere took offense... even deep offense... was enough to make people stop speaking? How many of the great works... be they film, television, writing, song, poem, play etc etc... would have never been produced if the creator was in fear of offending others? How stifled and awkward would every day conversation and life be if we had to stop saying anything that could cause offence... even deep offence.
That isn't a price I'm willing to pay.
To return to the where this discussion began, I do not think someone is morally justified in punching someone who insulted their daughter. I can understand why they did it and the provocation means I will clearly look upon it as more justifiable then if they had punched them for no reason but simply because something is more
justifiable that does not make it justified.