Boycotts and free speech

I’m something of an absolutist on free speech. Not a complete absolutist—I’m fine with rules against libel and slander, and I’m glad that there’s a copyright scheme (even if our current scheme has the copyright running for far too long). But that’s about it.

Still, I find myself disagreeing with Catherine Shaffer on using boycotts or similar sorts of pressure to influence the sponsors of speech I disagree with.

I guess my logic is this: I totally support the right of people to say things I disagree with; I just don’t feel like they have a right to make a good living saying it.

I’d oppose a boycott aimed at an ISP who hosts objectionable speech—that’s an effort to block the speech. I’d feel the same way about an effort aimed at convincing a venue not to allow a speaker to present his message.

But even a fairly successful effort to convince advertisers to pull funding from an objectionable speaker wouldn’t bring the speaker’s income to zero. There’ll always be some sponsors out there who’ll support even the most offensive speech, and if they want to pay enough to be associated with it to allow the speaker to pay his domain registration and hosting fees, I’m all for it. Heck, if they’ll pay enough to allow a radio personality enough to see the show broadcast on the airwaves, that’s okay too. But if pressure on the advertisers means that the speaker has to get a day job because his offensive speech no longer earns enough money to cover the rest of the bills, I think that’s probably a win.

(In practice, except for the most universally offensive speech, trying to organize a boycott is probably counterproductive, because people who agree with the speech will rally around.)

A modestly (or even highly) effective effort to reduce the income-earning power of offensive speech seems like a good thing. I don’t think it works against free speech.

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