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Book Review: Dignity vs. Speech?

By John K. Wilson

I began Steven J. Heyman’s new book, Free Speech &Human Dignity, with a certain trepidation due to the title. Anytime “human dignity” gets equated with the fundamental First Amendment freedoms, I begin to worry. And Heyman’s theories give me a lot to worry about.

Heyman, a professor of law at Chicago-Kent College of Law, evokes the natural rights tradition, and points out quite persuasively that the leading figures who guided the development of the idea of natural rights were virtually unanimous in their view that insults and defamation were not included in the protections of free speech. But Heyman is less persuasive in arguing that these long-dead thinkers were correct to believe this.

When Heyman writes about “dignitary injury,” I envision ambassadors in tuxedos getting hit with cream pies. In an age of reality TV and YouTube, when so many people are gleefully abandoning their own dignity, should we really be concerned about whether insults are too undignified to be tolerated in our free society?

Of course, there is no absolute free speech. But that’s no excuse for broad restrictions on free speech, either. The proper dividing line is when speech strays into threats and affects the rights of others. There are always tough cases to decide and difficult lines to draw, but these problems proliferate when far vaguer standards such as dignity are introduced. Reputation or dignity is not a real right, no matter how much Heyman tries to imagine it.

Dignity is a dangerous standard for academic freedom, too. Plenty of professors (and students) say some things that are an affront to dignity. But once we start firing people for the thoughtcrime of being undignified, where will we stop? And who should we trust to be the Dignity Police? Heyman doesn’t have a lot of answers for these practical question, but his book offers an interesting theoretical analysis. On specific issues such as the Mohammad cartoons, Heyman defends free speech against the false notion that merely “offensive” speech should be restricted. But it’s far from clear that his theories would be interpreted so charitably by those in power.

In the end, I’m beginning to appreciate Heyman’s title. When we defend free speech, we are enhancing human dignity in its deepest sense. Those who resort to hate speech or insults do not harm our dignity; they elevate it by proving that we live in a free society where insults are defeated with reason rather than repression.