Last week, Patrick and I had a polite disagreement about when cries of "censorship!" should be seen as metaphorical rather than literal. This is entangled with the issue of whether, and when, criticism of speech can reasonably be read as advocating censorship of speech.
Obviously criticism of speech is not in and of itself censorship. But I understand the point that I think that Patrick and commenter bw were trying to make: sometimes criticism of speech implies that speech ought to be censored by the government.
Let's look at two examples in the wake of the Tucson shootings.
Free speech isn't about the actual words you use; it's about the ideas that you convey. There are many ways to express the same idea.
The only idea that must be conveyed using violent rhetoric and imagery is violence.
The unapologetic nerd in me flashes to the opening scene of Serenity with the teacher saying "We don't want to teach them what to think — we want to teach them how." I think this can reasonably be interpreted as implying that it's permissible to censor rhetoric so long as you don't censor the underlying "idea."
Second, consider this reaction to news that anti-abortion activist Randal Terry will challenge President Obama in the 2012 presidential election. The author is worried about Terry's rhetoric like "child killing" and "slaughter of the unborn," which she refers to as "hate speech":
Fighting words. Fire in a crowded room. Was there no lesson learned from the assassination of Dr. Tiller?
"Fighting words" is a reference to a First Amendment doctrine of questionable continued viability, which is applicable to face-to-face encounters and not to political rhetoric. "Fire in a crowded room" is a mis-quoted reference to a Supreme Court decision later conclusively overturned and rejected by the Court. It's clear that the author drops both terms, however ineptly, to suggest that Terry's anti-abortion rhetoric is within the sphere of speech that may be censored by the government.
Neither case explicitly advocates censorship. The second quote comes closer. We ought to respond to both by calling out the implication and refuting it. But, I maintain, our criticism should keep clear the distinction between criticism of speech – and even calls for censorship — and censorship itself.
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