The Free Speech Absolutist


Please, please pass me that water, he said. Oh sure I said but first have you considered supporting my Patreon? Water for God’s sake just pass me the water he said. Absolutely! But by the way, you can pledge really low amounts, I’m talking just one dollar. God dammit I don’t care about your patreon I’m literally on fire burning to death here, he said. And doesn’t that make you want to support some swell political cartoons?, I asked. Then he died.


I’m sure there’s a self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist” out there who actually is concerned with free speech issues other than the ones that culture warriors most frequently argue about. After all, there are probably tens of thousands of “free speech absolutists,” and the dozen or two I’ve discussed these issues with are obviously not a random sample.

But still.

It’s not that I don’t see any “culture of free speech” concerns with issues like corporations owning sites like Twitter and Facebook, which are the most important “public square” that currently exists for public discussions. And I also see concerns with an overly judgement, unforgiving climate on campuses leading to chilled speech, and other so-called “cancel culture” issues.

But for so many “free speech absolutists,” these are the only free speech issues they know or care about. And it’s not a coincidence that these are the issues that impact some of the most privileged people in society, whereas free speech issues impacting the most marginalized people, like prisoners, are the ones that get ignored.


I was actually really confident I’d get this cartoon finished way sooner than I did. What happened? Well, partly, I had trouble getting started. But there was also this:

Six Steps To Making A Simple Cartoon Take Much Longer

Step 1: “I’ll take it easy, I’ll just draw two characters on a blank background. I’ve done strips like that before and they look good. Plus, it passes the Calvin and Hobbes test.”

Step 2: “Eh, this layout looks dull. I’ll just have them walking through a park instead. A couple of trees, it’ll take no time at all.”

Step 3: “Actually, wouldn’t it be neat if the first three panels formed a single continuous landscape image, with the characters walking through the landscape and getting closer to the readers with each panel?”

Step 4: “Might as well throw in an evergreen.”

Step 5: “That evergreen looks stupid on its own. Let’s throw in some more. And maybe some mountains behind the evergreens. And a house. And a bunny.”

Step 6: “Now that I’m almost completely done, what if I experimented with a new technique of doing the linework for the backgrounds? That could look cool, and how long could it take?”

The good news is that – for now, at least – I’m really proud of how this comic strip looks. I just hope that I don’t look at in and wince a year from now.


By the way, the next book collection is getting very close to being done. This one will have about twice as many cartoons in it as the previous collection.


TRANSCRIPT OF CARTOON

This cartoon has six panels. Each panel shows the same two people walking through a hilly park area while talking.

One character, who I’ll call “Glasses,” is wearing glasses (imagine that!), a cable knit sweater, and black jeans with the cuffs rolled up. She has long reddish hair falling in front of her shoulders, and some of it is in a bun on top. The other character, who I’ll call “Hat,” is wearing a light green hat with a black band and a brim. She’s also wearing a button-down collared shirt, in off-white, and a black skirt.  She has curly black hair falling down the back of her neck.

PANEL 1

Glasses and Hat are walking on a path through a hilly park area, talking cheerfully as they walk. They’re walking one in front of the other, not facing each other.

HAT: I’m a free speech absolutist!

GLASSES: That’s great! Me too!

PANEL 2

Glasses is talking eagerly, while Hat shrugs, looking a little bewildered.

GLASSES: So you speak out against prison censorship?

HAT: I’m not sure what that is.

PANEL 3

Glasses eagerly raises a forefinger, as if to say “this is it,” while Hat (still not looking back at Glasses) has a neutral to bored expression.

GLASSES: Okay… So you want to stop copyright law being used for censorship?

HAT: Meh.

PANEL 4

Glasses now looks a little puzzled rather than happy, rubbing a hand against her chin. Hat glances back, now looking a bit annoyed.

GLASSES: Do you want labor laws protecting workers from being fired for off-work speech?

HAT: Nah. But the people criticizing the speech should shut up.

PANEL 5

A much closer shot of the two of them; in fact, Hat is mostly off-panel, and we only see the back of her head. Glasses is looking annoyed, and leans forward a bit towards Hat’s back to press her point.

GLASSES: Immigrants targeted by I.C.E. for their speech? Sex workers silenced by credit card companies?

HAT: Don’t know, don’t care.

PANEL 6

The “camera” pulls way out, so we’re seeing both characters in full figure. They’re on the top of a hill, with blue sky behind them. Glasses has shoved her hands into her pockets in a glum way, while Hat is grinning and raising her hands into the air, clearly energized and excited by her issue.

GLASSES: Er… So what makes you a “free speech absolutist?”

HAT: I want Twitter punished if they ban me.


This cartoon on Patreon

This entry posted in Cartooning & comics, Free speech, censorship, copyright law, etc.. Bookmark the permalink. 

15 Responses to The Free Speech Absolutist

  1. 1
    bcb says:

    I’m proposing a new bill that any copyright or trademark owned by a corporation who whines that “freedom of speech is under attack” immediately enters the public domain. After all, we wouldn’t want to infringe the free speech of those poor oppressed conservative college students by telling them they can’t freely copy and redistribute WSJ articles on the internet.

  2. 2
    RonF says:

    “So you speak out against prison censorship?”
    I also am not sure what that is. OTOH, prisoners already have some of their civil rights restricted quite legally (e.g., their RKBA), so I would not be surprised if their First Amendment rights are also restricted.

    “So you want to stop copyright law being used for censorship?”
    Not clear on this one either.

    “Do you want labor laws protecting workers from being fired for off-work speech?”
    Presuming that said speech is not incitement to violence (which is illegal anyway, IIRC), yes.

    “Immigrants targeted by I.C.E. for their speech?”
    People here legally? Absolutely not. People here illegally? They should be targeted by I.C.E. anyway, so if you make yourself more visible in one fashion or another it’s not a surprise if law enforcement takes notice of you and acts accordingly.

    “Sex workers silenced by credit card companies?”
    Absolutely not.

  3. 3
    Eytan Zweig says:

    “So you want to stop copyright law being used for censorship?”
    Not clear on this one either.

    Here’s an example of this sort of thing (involving non-US governments using US laws to silence criticism):

    https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2014/05/state-censorship-copyright-spanish-firm-abuses-DMCA

  4. 4
    Görkem says:

    What we see recurring in Ron’s analysis is that people who can be deprived of one set of rights (e.g. prisoners, immigrants) also de facto lose their other rights. I presume Ron wouldn’t go so far as to say all their rights, I doubt he would advocate that it’s OK to murder prisoners (although some would), but civil rights are apparently OK.

    Ron, when one is sentenced to the deprivation of some rights (leaving aside the massive issue of unjust sentencing) there is no cascading loss of other rights by implication. Prisoners lose their right to live where they want, but they are not sentenced to lose their right to freedom of speech. It is often restricted for prison-administrative reasons, but this is putting administrative convenience over people’s rights. Which you would think these self-proclaimed freedom loving conservatives would get up in arms about. I guess those prisoners contain too many PoC/LGBTQ+ among them for their rights to really be a priority, not when compared to the more urgent issue of somebody being removed from a Facebook group for calling Obama a terrorist.

  5. 5
    Dianne says:

    People here illegally? They should be targeted by I.C.E. anyway,

    Breaking one law means that all your rights and protections should disappear? People with speeding tickets should no longer have free speech? Illegal entry into the country is a misdemeanor like speeding, so the consequences must be similar, right?

  6. 6
    RonF says:

    What we see recurring in Ron’s analysis is that people who can be deprived of one set of rights (e.g. prisoners, immigrants) also de facto lose their other rights.

    Breaking one law means that all your rights and protections should disappear?

    These are ridiculous misrepresentations of what I said. And I’m not at all clear on why people who have entered this country illegally should not in fact be targeted by I.C.E. anytime they come to public notice. As has often been pointed out here, the right to free speech does not mean a right to avoid consequences. I.C.E. should target anyone here illegally, but clearly it’s often hard to find such people. If such a person makes it easier to find them why should I.C.E. not take advantage of that? It’s not an issue of the content of what they said, it’s an issue of how to find them.

    Prisoners lose their right to live where they want, but they are not sentenced to lose their right to freedom of speech.

    Where did I advocate taking away prisoners’ freedom of speech?

  7. 7
    Corso says:

    Görkem @4

    I doubt he would advocate that it’s OK to murder prisoners (although some would), but civil rights are apparently OK.

    Dianne @ 5

    Breaking one law means that all your rights and protections should disappear?

    I think that these are deliberate exaggerations because you understand that if you approached the discussion honestly, you’d have to admit that Ron has a point. The alternative is that you made those comments actually thinking that they were making a point, and I think that reflects poorly.

    Prisoners lose all kinds of civil rights upon conviction. That obviously doesn’t mean that they lose all their rights, but just as obvious is that they lose some, and the ones they lose are pretty fundamental: They lose the right to vote. They lose the right to bear arms. They lose their mobility rights.

    In this context we’re talking about free speech. I’m pretty sure that prisoner’s speech rights get infringed on a daily basis. To pick an absurd example: They probably will be discouraged from full chestedly singing the Major General’s Song at 3AM. That probably counts as an infringement. That infringement is probably allowed, because it seems reasonable to do so.

    So once you realize that some speech rights are going to be reasonably infringed during incarceration, the question isn’t whether infringements is allowed, the question is how much infringement is allowed.

    And that logic carries through to other venues… In the context of ICE. It’s ICE’s job to apprehend people in the country illegally. Because they’re breaking the law. The people they’re apprehending don’t have the right to participate in society any more than any other class of criminal who’s conduct warrants arrest. I seriously doubt that you would have the same hangups about arrest at a school or church if we were talking about a murderer.

  8. 8
    RonF says:

    On November 9th Ann Coulter was prevented from speaking on the Cornell University campus at an event organized specifically for the purpose of hearing her by a group of students.

    Do you consider this to have been a violation of Ms. Coulter’s rights? Do you consider it a violation of the rights of the group that organized the event? Do you consider it a violation of the rights of the people who came to hear what she had to say?

    What do you think the appropriate action for Cornell University to take is? I’ve read their Student Code of Conduct. The actions the disruptive students took (presuming they were all students) are clearly covered by that code, and apparently the university has a very broad range of sanctions it can apply; anything from warning them to suspending them to expelling them.

  9. 9
    Dianne says:

    It’s ICE’s job to apprehend people in the country illegally. Because they’re breaking the law. The people they’re apprehending don’t have the right to participate in society any more than any other class of criminal who’s conduct warrants arrest.

    Once again, entering the US illegally is a misdemeanor, the equivalent of (minor) speeding or illegally turning right on red. If we’re going to say that it’s okay to restrict illegal immigrants rights on the ground that they broke the law, then we must also restrict the rights of everyone who has ever had a traffic ticket. (Full disclosure, this does include myself.)

  10. 10
    Dianne says:

    Ron @8: But surely then the students who shouted during Coulter’s speech were only exercising their right to free speech.

  11. 11
    Eytan Zweig says:

    RonF @8 – I do not consider it a violation of anyone’s rights. I consider that it is likely a violation of the university’s rules and should be treated as such. The appropriate action for Cornell to take is to determine whether their rules were actually broken, and if they were, make a determination of what an appropriate penalty is and apply it.

  12. 12
    Corso says:

    Diane @ 9

    Once again, entering the US illegally is a misdemeanor, the equivalent of (minor) speeding or illegally turning right on red. If we’re going to say that it’s okay to restrict illegal immigrants rights on the ground that they broke the law, then we must also restrict the rights of everyone who has ever had a traffic ticket. (Full disclosure, this does include myself.)

    This isn’t correct.

    You’re right that the first time people enter illegally it’s a misdemeanor;

    8 U.S.C. § 1325 makes it a crime to unlawfully enter the United States. It applies to people who do not enter with proper inspection at a port of entry, such as those who enter between ports of entry, avoid examination or inspection, or who make false statements while entering or attempting to enter. A first offense is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine, up to six months in prison, or both.

    8 U.S.C. § 1326 makes it a crime to unlawfully reenter, attempt to unlawfully reenter, or to be found in the United States after having been deported, ordered removed, or denied admission. This crime is punishable as a felony with a maximum sentence of two years in prison. Higher penalties apply if the person was previously removed after having been convicted of certain crimes: up to 10 years for a single felony conviction (other than an aggravated felony conviction) or three misdemeanor convictions involving drugs or crimes against a person, and up to 20 years for an aggravated felony conviction.

    Most of the people ICE will be after are in the latter category, or they’ve run afoul of the law in other ways, usually by failing to appear for their hearings. But regardless of whether the individual in question has committed a felony or just a misdemeanor though, it’s fairly obvious that not all misdemeanors are the same, and that some misdemeanors do carry some amount of jail time, which warrants arrest. And arrest, by definition, curtails rights.

  13. 13
    Corso says:

    Diane @10

    But surely then the students who shouted during Coulter’s speech were only exercising their right to free speech.

    I disagree with Ron that Coulter’s speech rights were infringed. The students aren’t synonymous with the school, which I believe is private anyway.

    But it’s fairly obvious that Coulter didn’t enjoy the institution of free speech, and to answer your question directly: Sure. It’s their right to speak, or yell.

    But “freedom of speech” doesn’t just mean the right to speak, we generally understand it that way because it’s in the name, but it’s more complicated than that – It’s the right to converse. It’s a group right. Freedom of speech doesn’t require people to be an audience, but if they want to be an audience, they should be allowed to hear what the speaker has to say.

    The students infringed the free speech of not only Coulter, but everyone in that room that wanted to listen to her. Conversely, they should have had the ability to say whatever they wanted, but they didn’t have a right to an audience.

  14. 14
    RonF says:

    Once again, entering the US illegally is a misdemeanor, the equivalent of (minor) speeding or illegally turning right on red.

    What State do you live in? That’s not true in Illinois. For a speeding ticket to rise to the level of a misdemeanor in Illinois you have to be running at least 26 MPH or more over the speed limit; that’s not minor. Illegally turning on red isn’t a misdemeanor at all, nor are the vast majority of traffic tickets (DUI being the major exception). They’re citations that can eventually cost you your license if you keep committing them or refuse to pay your fines but they’re not misdemeanors.

    Misdemeanors in Illinois are more serious; things like simple assault, storing a firearm in a fashion that permits a minor 14 year old or younger access to it and who then causes death or great bodily harm to someone, shoplifting less than $300 worth of merchandise, certain illegal drug sales, etc. The penalties for a Class A misdemeanor can be up to (but not exceeding) 1 year in jail and a $2,500 fine. “Misdemeanor” is not simply “not a felony”.

    And as Corso has pointed out, entering the U.S. illegally is a misdemeanor only the first time. Do it a second time and it is a felony.

  15. 15
    Ampersand says:

    Since it was (I’m pretty sure) a privately-owned auditorium, I think it really comes down to the rules of the venue. If a venue WANTS to host a raucous event where it’s expected that the audience will be yelling and jeering, then I don’t see any problem with that.

    In this case, however, it’s clear that’s not what the event venue was going for. And although I think it’s expected and normal for there to be a few minutes of loud protest, or occasional interruptions, during an event like this, the students went too far (imo) by organizing to have continuous, nonstop interruptions. (The protestors planned ahead of time to create noise one at a time, rather than all at once, so every time someone was thrown out a new person immediately replaced them.)

    I do think that protestors have a free speech right to make their opinions known with some level of protest; neither the speaker, nor the others in the audience, have a right to be undisturbed and unbothered by contrary opinions. But genuinely making it impossible for the event to occur goes against the ideal of free speech, even if it doesn’t break the law, and even though first amendment rights aren’t technically at issue here.

    That said – and to get at the theme of my cartoon – it’s also trivial. Coulter has more, and more substantive, access to speech than 99.999999999% of people. The people in the audience, attending a very prestigious college, have much more substantive access to public debate than the large majority of people. Any student who wants to know what Coulter thinks, or to watch her speak, can consult her many books, or can watch many videos online. There is zero chance that the result of this protest will be to shut Coulter up, or prevent anyone from knowing her views.

    We can disapprove of what the protestors did, while at the same time recognizing that no one here was substantively deprived of their ability to participate in public debate.

    There is a lot of more substantive censorship going on in the USA – censorship that has a much higher chance of substantively shutting people out of public discourse. (Again, see my cartoon.) And something like prison censorship, even though it’s much more substantive and matters much more, isn’t going to get 1/1000th the notice that this Coulter speech being shut down already has.

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