There's a tension so deep in how we think about free expression, it should rightly be called a paradox.
On the one hand, regardless of ideology, artists and writers almost unanimously insist that they do what they do to change minds. But the same artistes, auteurs and opiners recoil in horror when anyone suggests that they might be responsible for inspiring bad deeds.
The arguments against free speech are stacked and waiting for these moments like weapons in a gladiatorial armory. There's no philosophical consistency to when they get picked up and deployed, beyond the unimpeachable consistency of opportunism.
When attacked -- again heedless of ideology or consistency -- the gladiators instantly trade weapons. The finger-pointers of five minutes ago suddenly wax righteous in their indignation that mere expression -- rather, their expression -- should be blamed. Many of the same liberals who pounded soapboxes into pulp at the very thought of labeling record albums with violent-lyrics warnings instantly insisted that
And this is where the paradox starts to come into view: Everyone has a point.
"The blame for violent acts lies with the people who commit them, and with those who explicitly and seriously call for violence,"
As a matter of law, I agree with this entirely. But as a matter of culture, it's more complicated.
I have always thought it absurd to claim that expression cannot lead people to do bad things, precisely because it is so obvious that expression can lead people to do good things. According to legend,
If words don't matter, then democracy is a joke, because democracy depends entirely on making arguments -- not for killing, but for voting. Only a fool would argue that words can move people to vote but not to kill.
Ironically, free speech was born in an attempt to stop killing. It has its roots in freedom of conscience. Before the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the common practice was that the rulers' religion determined their subjects' faith too. Religious dissent was not only heresy but a kind of treason. After Westphalia, exhaustion with religion-motivated bloodshed created space for toleration. As the historian C.V. Wedgwood put it, the West had begun to understand "the essential futility of putting the beliefs of the mind to the judgment of the sword."
This didn't mean that Protestants instantly stopped hating Catholics or vice versa. Nor did it mean that the more ecumenical hatred of Jews vanished. What it did mean is that it was no longer acceptable to kill people simply for what they believed -- or said.
But words still mattered. Art still moved people. And the law is not the full and final measure of morality. Hence the paradox: In a free society, people have a moral responsibility for what they say, while at the same time a free society requires legal responsibility only for what they actually do.