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Defending death threats

December 14, 2011

I believe in free speech. I mean — I really believe in free speech.

That doesn’t just mean that I support Andrew Bolt’s right to say whatever he likes about aboriginals, irrespective of who gets offended. And it doesn’t just mean that I oppose all censorship, such as the banning of Mein Kampf in some European countries. It also means I oppose defamation laws, and I believe you should be allowed to say anything about anybody, whether true or false, for whatever reason. It even means I believe that tobacco companies should be free to advertise.

I believe attempts to limit speech “for the public good” will mostly do more harm than good, and that messy and imperfect freedom is better than neat and tidy (but even more imperfect) government control.

Today I was discussing another of the controversial areas of free speech. Yesterday, that crazy old kook of the blogosphere grumpy-Graeme Bird wrote an eloquent rant aimed at me, where he said:

“He must die. John Humphreys must die so that this country can live.  He has betrayed this country too many times and he must no longer live … This is too important a subject to let John Humphreys live. Where does the lying end. I’m convinced that it only ends when John Humphreys is cold and stiff … HE MUST DIE, FOR THE LYING TO END. AND THIS IS A LIFE OR DEATH MATTER … I am accusing Humphreys of being a knowing traitor … SO MY NEW CLAIM IS THAT HUMPHREYS WILL NEVER STOP LYING. THAT HE WILL NEVER BE A SAFE PAIR OF HANDS. THAT HE WILL ALWAYS BE A TRAITOR. WHILE HE YET LIVES.”

My first death threat. Now I know that I’m important. A few friends have suggested I take it seriously, and one kindly offered to call his federal police friend who would call Graeme… but I nixed that idea. For his part, Graeme says that it is not a death threat because he doesn’t plan on doing any killing himself. That’s good to hear. But another friend pointed out that the above sentiments might still be considered incitement to violence… which got me thinking about free speech.

My conclusion, once again, is that death threats such as above should be allowed as free speech.

The moral reason to allow the above sort of rants is that Graeme hasn’t actually directly hurt anybody with his rant, nor has he tried to coerce anybody (by saying “do XYZ, or else”), and so he should be left alone. He has simply stated that he wants me dead. If somebody were to act on Graeme’s death wish, then in my opinion the responsible person is the killer, and not Graeme.

We are surrounded with advertising every time we turn on the TV or go outside. We are more subtly being influenced every time we read a newspaper or book or website, or when we talk with our friends. We are even being influenced when we simply watch strangers on the streets. But ultimately, I believe that each person needs to be held responsible for their own actions, and that responsibility can not be passed on to the people who have influenced the actor. If I say that a book is good, and you go and buy the book… then it is you (not I) who is responsible for your actions. Likewise, if grumpy-Graeme says he wants me dead, and mad-Doug (another freak with an unhealthy fixation on me) actually comes and kills me… then it is mad-Doug (not grumpy-Graeme) who is responsible for the murder.

The idea that advertisers or influential people are responsible for the actions of others undermines individual responsibility, and it sets a dangerous precedent for controlling who is allowed to say what to whom. And once we start controlling speech to only “good speech” we get into dangerous territory.

None of this is to say that all speech is equally ethical or nice. If you spread untrue and nasty rumours about someone, then you’re an asshole according to my view of ethics. If you incite people to violence, or say things with the intention of hurting others, or knowingly defame somebody, or encourage people to do something you think will likely be bad for them — then you’re not a nice person. This is why most people think Graeme & Doug are jerks. But I do not believe that the government should set laws that require us to be “nice”.

The idea that the government should enforce their “correct” ethics on everybody is problematic both because different people have different ethical systems (consider different religions) and also because to impose the “correct” ethics it is first necessary to have a perfect person who knows the divine truth. I doubt that the government is run by such divine perfect people. Indeed, I doubt such a person exists. The best way to encourage ethical behaviour is the natural approach of civil society, where nice people tend to have friends and assholes tend to be excluded, and where people with similar ethics tend to congregate together. This explains why grumpy-Graeme and mad-Doug are the only people who take each other seriously.

There is also a practical reason why the above sort of death threats should be legal. If there actually was some sort of plan to kill me, then it would be very helpful for me to know. Keeping such sentiments underground may protect some delicate sensitivities, but it will not necessarily reduce the sentiment. Now at least if I wake up dead everybody will know where to start the investigation.

  1. TerjeP
    December 14, 2011 at 10:38 pm

    Given the quote I would put what Gaeme said into the category of hate speech rather than describe it as a death threat. I agree he should be free to hate you and to announce his hatred to the world. However if he was announcing an intention to kill you then that would be a different matter and there should then be scope for a police investigation.

    So in summary I don’t think you got a death threat but if you did get a death threat I think you would be wise to report it to the police and the police should have the capacity to detain a person who freely admits an intention to kill you.

  2. TerjeP
    December 14, 2011 at 10:41 pm

    p.s. Let’s say he said he was going to kill you unless you give him $50,000. Is that free speech or extortion?

  3. December 15, 2011 at 6:00 am

    That would be coercion.

    I had written several more paragraphs going into the nuance of free speech, but decided that going into those issues was too much of a distraction from my main point and so deleted them.

    In short, when speech is integrally linked with an act of aggression, then it is part of the aggression. The most obvious case of this is coercion, where you walk into a house with a gun and tell the owner to give you money or you will shoot them. The more ambiguous case is conspiracy, where you are involved with materially supporting an act of aggression.

    I think Graeme’s comments can be seen as “incitement to violence”, but that it is neither coercion nor conspiracy, and so should be protected as part of free speech.

  4. JC
    December 16, 2011 at 3:22 am


    You’re nothing, a non-entity unless you receive a threat from Bird. Welcome to the club.

  5. December 17, 2011 at 3:46 am

    I think the use of preemptive force must be legal in the cases where a person has promised to attack you and do it themselves, and arguably in cases where a person has a large enough influence for their requests for killing to be heard. Since he has requested others do it and has no special existing influence, I agree with your decision.

  6. December 18, 2011 at 5:57 am

    Christopher Hitchens is clearly copying me:

  7. fidens
    December 18, 2011 at 8:11 am

    To test the limits of your argument: what about incitement to mass violence, as in the case of Radio Rwanda/RTLM, or terror, e.g. a radical imam promoting violent jihad?

  8. December 18, 2011 at 8:27 am

    I don’t know the details of Radio Rwanda, but in the abstract I think people should be allowed to talk about the idea of staging a violent revolution.

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