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Not So Simple

Brass Tacks

By Robert A. Katz

"NO FREE SPEECH for murderers!"

This is a powerful statement, and one that led many protesters Wednesday night to shout down a Contra spokesman in Boylston Hall.

Their conduct raises a serious question. Are protesters justified in preventing a speaker from presenting an opinion which they believe amounts to murder?

When faced with the apparent choice between saving human lives and protecting an abstract freedom, most people instinctively choose the former. If the purpose of speech is to advocate murder, its seems morally permissible to abridge the right to speak.

Nonetheless, the logic behind the disruption is problematic. The disrupters are partially correct in saying "No free speech for murderers." A person does not have the right, through public speech, to incite domestic murder (capital punishment excepted). The free speech of a KKK leader can be legally and morally denied, if through a public address he hopes to persuade fellow bigots to commit racially-motivated homocide.

But the discussion of murder within the context of foreign policy changes things. The fact is, killing foreigners is an instrument of almost every state's international strategy. To advocate military action against another state, even when justified, is still to advocate the murder of foreigners--and sometimes even of innocent foreign civilians. An example of this might be the bombing of the German city of Dresden during World War II.

Thus the very debate over aid to the Contras is not in itself immoral merely because it involves the deaths of foreigners. There is a moral difference, at least initially, between inciting domestic violence and advocating international military action.

What is morally pertinent is the nature of the action in question. The same murder, depending on one's perspective, can be an act of terrorism or a necessary, albeit unfortunate, aspect in the struggle for some greater good. The debate over aid to the Contras hinges on the resolution of this very question.

The idea of "no free speech for murderers" is flawed on a second count. It conceives of speech as a one-sided activity which is granted or denied an individual on the basis of his actions. But speech is an interactive endeavor, involving both speaker and listener. And by denying a speaker the opportunity to be heard, we do injustice to those who wish to hear his or her point of view.

Consequently, the question is not whether the Contras have disqualified themselves from the discourse of civilized society, but whether free citizens discussing the course of their nation's foreign policy have the right to hear all opinions--including the opinions of those who advocate military action.

Even if the protesters' interpretation of America's actions in Central America is correct, which I tend to think is the case, this still does not justify their action. In order to avoid internal civil war, we require rules to insure our peaceful coexistence. And free expression--unless used to incite domestic violence--is one such device. There are many groups within our society which desire to repress opinions they regard as incorrect or immoral. But if everyone was allowed to be an extremist in defense of his or her cause, we'd be left with an extremist society.

Though the disrupters Wednesday night claimed to be legitimately denying free speech to murderers, were they not really attempting to insure the ascendence of their interpretation of events in Central America by forcibly drowning out the opposing point of view?

And the act of repressing opinions which one considers incorrect is totalitarian, and remains so whether practiced by governments or by groups of private individuals.

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