Freedom to Cause Harm?

[Content note: Harassment]

One of the pervasive negative stereotypes of feminism and sometimes of the entire left wing in general is that we're all humorless jerks who scream "I'M OFFENDED" every time someone makes a joke. That we have no respect for free speech because we're always pushing for laws that restrict the rights of people to say even things that cause offense. This is a common criticism of both hate crimes laws and harassment laws; that we're restricting thought and expression in unacceptable ways. I thought I'd take a moment and address some examples of harassment laws.

The first is an interesting one, in that it concerns me directly. In point of fact, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has placed my school, Brandeis, on their list of the 12 Worst Colleges for Free Speech. Part of that has to do with a pair of cases that I am in all honesty not familiar enough with to comment on, and certainly I don't mean to whitewash or play up my own school - I have no doubt that Brandeis has made plenty of its own mistakes in dealing with speech on campus.

That said, I do want to look at their analysis of Brandeis rules and regulations that have an effect on speech. Two sections are marked with a red icon, indicative of clear and substantial restrictions on freedom of speech - information provided on sexual harassment (particularly the list of "what is sexual harassment") and an excerpt from the internet usage policies (particularly Section 11.4).

For the life of me I can't understand what is objectionable about either of those. The Internet usage policies are one thing (and something we'll come back to in another context), given that they call out "material that is explicitly sexual or offensive" (emphasis mine) as unacceptable. The list of what comprises sexual assault, though... Well, let's see.
What is Sexual Harassment?

For example:

* subtle pressure for sexual activity
* unnecessary touches or contact
* offensive sexual graffiti or cartoons
* inappropriate sexual innuendoes
* verbal sexual abuse disguised as humor
* whistling, cat-calls, obscene gestures
It may just be me, but I'm pretty sure all of that is unquestionably harmful. None of it should be protected speech!

Getting back to use of the Internet, I'll introduce topic number two, incidentally the reason I began writing this post in the first place: Kotaku addresses (and by that I mean reposts something from Gizmodo) an Arizona law which they claim makes trolling illegal. We've already discussed my stance on SOPA, of course, but there is a limit to how far I'm willing to take the "freedom of the Internet" card, and this article goes way past it. The law itself, of course...
"It is unlawful for any person, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend, to use any electronic or digital device and use any obscene, lewd or profane language or suggest any lewd or lascivious act, or threaten to inflict physical harm to the person or property of any person."
... is much the same as Brandeis's Internet usage policy in a lot of ways. Again, we see that language appear about annoying or offending.

I've written before about how maybe there shouldn't be a law against simply causing offense (and even that isn't quite the point, since I mostly was trying to say that intentionally causing offense is being a jerk regardless of the law), but all the same I'm inclined to walk that back a little. The legal definition of harassment is a consistent pattern of action that serves only to: "alarm or seriously annoy" (Maryland), or "which seriously alarms that person and would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress" (Massachusetts).

I think it is clearly recognized in both cases that annoyance or offense constitutes a kind of real emotional harm to the victim. Calling a consistent pattern of offense "harassment" does nothing to change the fact that causing that offense can in itself be harmful, although not in ways that are outwardly visible. I believe that that in particular is something that I have some measure of personal experience with; my middle and high school days were comparatively mild, and yet I still believe that they affected the way I act around people quite thoroughly - not in positive ways, either.

And unless we want the freedom of speech to become the freedom to cause harm, it's high time we stopped attacking the laws that prevent that kind of thing.

UPDATE: Well, Think Progress is also covering the situation in Arizona, and their opinions seem to be in line with the Kotaku/Gizmodo argument as well. I can't remember the last time I disagreed with Think Progress on something, and I am very much open to argument on this one, because for me disagreeing with people or groups that you usually agree with is a sign that you need to carefully go back over the situation. That said, I believe that the points I made above stand on their own as a response to concerns over the Arizona law.

No comments:

Post a Comment