Saturday, June 30, 2018

SPLC learns that rights come with responsibilities

The Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) has settled a defamation lawsuit brought by British 'liberal Muslim' Maajid Nawaz for $3.4 million. Nawaz is well known for his advocacy of human rights and moderate approach to dealing with Islamic extremism, so it was surprising when in 2014 the SPLC listed him and his Quilliam Foundation in their 'Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists'. However, anyone who is familiar with the SPLC activities in recent years will know that the 50 year old organisation, which was established to fight the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups in the American South, has become an extremely partisan organisation itself. Any prominent political advocate who holds views that differ from SPLC's hard-left positions on a range of issues can expect to appear on one of its lists. That wouldn't be such a problem if it wasn't for the fact that many mainstream organisations use the SPLC's lists as the gauge of whether someone's political views are acceptable. Appearing on them is likely to result in you being banned from social media or even losing your job.

Many advocates of free speech (such as this writer in Quillette) have asked whether the settlement will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression. I think they are mistaken. No right is absolute. The right to free speech, such as is enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, does not mean the right to be free of any costs of enjoying that right. This is probably the most misunderstood aspect of the nature of rights and this misunderstanding results in a distortion of the concept of rights. Rights are by definition universal, which means that my rights shouldn't abrogate your rights. It means that rights come with responsibilities. The right to life, for example, comes with the responsibility to provide for your own survival - it does not include the right to be fed.

In the case of defamation laws, there are two rights that are being balanced - your right to free speech with another person's right to pursue their own happiness. If you defame someone, you impose a cost on them - at the very least the intangible cost to their reputation but very often a real and tangible cost, such as on their ability to earn an income. The damages awarded in successful defamation suits do not abrogate your right to free speech but rather ensure you pay the costs of enjoying your right. The multi-million dollar award to Maajid Nawaz reinforces this important principle in law and won't have a chilling effect on free speech per se. The court didn't say SPLC couldn't continue to publish their Field Guide, only that it has a responsibility to get their facts rights and that there is a cost if they don't.


Ray said...


paul scott said...

I am hoping the array of civil actions being prepared now against the utterly despicable Poverty Centre crushes it beyond recovery > No speak bout nuthin again, never.