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Speaking Freely in a Time of War
April 22, 2003
By Barry Mauer

"I think this war is an attempt by President Bush to concentrate his hold on power," said Barry Mauer, 37, an English Professor at the University of Central Florida. "This [war] is clearly a power grab." Orlando Sentinel, March 23

The following is a personal letter I received in response to the quotation that appeared in the Orlando Sentinel:

My father was a WWII Navy veteran. He served on an aircraft carrier (USS Enterprise CV6). He passed away 2 years ago, but NEVER forgot what he fought for over 50 years before. I was lucky enough to turn 18 during a peaceful time, and as the draft (and registration) were done away with. But I have NEVER forgotten what these brave soldiers sacrificed in order for me to live free. I played taps for Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies. I played taps at Veterans' funerals. This was just a tiny payback to them for all they did for ALL OF US. At my father's funeral, I watched these feeble but proud WWII Veterans fold the American flag that they presented my mother. You are a disgrace to the memory of my father and all those who preceded him in death so that you would have the freedom to speak your mind.
Your assertion that "this war is clearly a power grab" shows your lack of rational thinking. Liberals are controlled only by emotions. Logic never comes into play. Facts only get in the way. You hide behind the veil of academic freedom. You have every right to speak your mind, but words have consequences. That is why I exercise my right to accuse you of being anti-American.
God Bless President Bush
God Bless America!!

The letter above is in many ways typical of the anti-free speech arguments heard these days. In the essay that follows, I will address some of the logos (logic) behind these arguments. My goal is to expose their hidden premises, the parts that are implicit but left unspoken. By exposing these hidden premises, I will demonstrate that the anti-free speech arguments used against critics of the war are not sound. Unfortunately I don't have the space to address the pathos (attempts to elicit emotion) and ethos (attempts to establish the writer's character) in these arguments.

We have heard the argument that U.S. soldiers in Iraq are defending our right to free speech. There are implicit arguments in this line of reasoning that go something like this:

Argument 1
Major premise (hidden): Only soldiers can defend the rights of all to free speech.
Minor premise: You (or I) are not a soldier.
Conclusion: Neither you nor I can defend the rights of all to free speech.

Analysis: In this argument, the major premise is clearly false. Only if soldiers in all cases defended others' freedom of speech would it be true. Since you or I could defend a co-worker's freedom of speech by creating a forum for her to express her views, we must conclude that the argument above is not sound.

Argument 2
Major premise (partially hidden): Since U.S. soldiers defend our right to free speech, anything that weakens the effectiveness of soldiers undermines our free speech.
Minor premise: Criticism of the military or the administration in control weakens the effectiveness of soldiers.
Conclusion: Critics of the military or the administration must be isolated, vilified, and intimidated because they undermine our free speech.

Analysis: The major premise is false because it presumes that the direct purpose of soldiers' activities is to defend free speech. In the case of the Iraq war, there is no clear connection between the actions of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and the defense of free speech in the U.S. The minor premise is false because there are many cases in which there is no clear causal relation between criticism of the military and the administration and any weakening of military effectiveness. Some critics may even improve military effectiveness: an example would be the critics who pointed to the poor quality of U.S. chemical warfare suits. Both the major and minor premises are false; hence the argument is not sound. You never hear anyone state the conclusion to this argument because it is clearly contradictory; one cannot intimidate critics and claim to uphold free speech at the same time.

Argument 3
Major premise (hidden): If the U.S. were to be invaded and occupied by an enemy who didn't believe in free speech, we would lose our free speech.
Minor premise: We are fighting an enemy who doesn't believe in free speech.
Conclusion: We must defeat this enemy in order to maintain our free speech.

Analysis: A true threat to U.S. sovereignty, such as the Axis powers during World War II, might make this argument sound. When pro-war advocates used this argument earlier this year, they implied that the military of Iraq would invade and occupy the United States and then strip away our freedom of speech. By stating the implications of this premise so starkly, we are impressed with its absurdity.

Argument 4
Major premise: Speech that needlessly endangers other people (like yelling "fire" in a crowded theater) is not protected speech.
Minor premise: Criticism of the war needlessly endangers the troops.
Conclusion: Criticism of the war is not protected speech.

Analysis: In this argument, the minor premise is questionable at best. If the war itself is needless, then the war itself certainly endangers the troops needlessly.

If someone yells "fire" in a crowded theater, he is justified in doing so if there really is a fire. In fact, even if he thinks there's a fire he is justified because of the precautionary principle, which indicates that it is less risky to yell "fire" and be wrong than it is not to yell "fire" and be right. For example, if you smell smoke in a crowded theater, you are justified in yelling "fire." It is unjustified and malicious to yell "fire" in a crowded theater if you have no evidence that there is a fire.

Let's test this argument in relation to the Iraq war. George Tenet, head of the CIA, has said that the Iraq war is a threat to Americans; he testified that instead of reducing the threat of terrorism, the Iraq war would increase the threat of terrorism. Tenet's warning is similar to that of the person who smells smoke and yells "fire" in a crowded theater. Tenet has evidence - the "smoke" - that Al-Qaeda is using the Iraq war as a recruiting tool. He is within his rights to warn others about the threat of "fire" - impending terrorist attacks as a result of the war.

In contrast to Tenet, George W. Bush is like the person without evidence of a fire yelling "fire" in a crowded theater. For example, Bush said that Iraq was an imminent threat to the United States because the Iraqi regime was acquiring enriched uranium, a key component in the development of nuclear weapons. The "evidence" for this claim was a forged document. In other instances, both Bush and Colin Powell have stated that the Iraqi regime was allied with Al-Qaeda, a claim that not even American intelligence officials support.

Falsifying and exaggerating threats in order to take a country into war qualifies as an unjustified use of speech, analogous to yelling "fire" in a crowded theater. The Iraq war endangers U.S. troops, Iraqi citizens, and American citizens, who now face greater risk of terrorist reprisals as a result of the war.

Those who control the channels of discourse - the newspapers, television, radio, and public events - behave contrary to the principles of free speech when they disallow legitimate criticism of the Bush administration. Furthermore, by permitting malicious and dangerous instances of speech to pass through their discourse channels without analysis or rebuttal, those who control the media endanger us all.

Free speech isn't really free. It's not an abstract thing. It occurs within a historical material context when people exercise it. To have free speech, a person has to struggle to gain access to the channels of discourse. To have free speech, a person has to establish an identity as one who speaks.

Speech is both a function of power and a form of power. Think about any situation in which you have been under the power of someone else: your parents, your boss, or a superior officer. The person with power has free speech, right? In these contexts, you have to struggle for the right to speech. It's not fair, but it is the way things work.

Free speech is won when people assert their right to it and maintain that right. Others can defend your free speech, but they can do so only if you first assert it.

So who is entitled to free speech? Is it only the province of those in power? No. Free speech is acquired by those who struggle for it.


Barry Mauer is an assistant professor of English at the University of Central Florida, Orlando.

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