Column: Age-old threats to freedom of speech

“The moment somebody says, ‘Yes, I believe in free speech, but…’ I stop listening,” says Salman Rushdie, who knows something about freedom of expression and its costs.

We’ve all heard arguments from what Rushdie calls “the ‘but’ brigade.”

“I’m a passionate defender of free speech, but there have to be limits.”

“Free speech is the bedrock of democracy, but hate speech is different.”

“You have the right to speak, but not the right to offend.”

As social norms of civility steadily evaporate, calls for “sensible limits” on free speech are increasing. When speech is so provocative that it incites violence, some argue, we’re better off shutting it down.

We heard those arguments after the massacre in January at Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine.

We heard them again last month, when two men opened fire on a Texas event featuring depictions of Mohammed.

Texas being Texas, the shooters were promptly shot themselves. But the tragedy set off much tut-tutting about how the event was “incendiary” and “offensive.”

The New York Times criticized organizers of the Garland event for “inflicting deliberate anguish” on devout Muslims by displaying depictions of Mohammed.

Incidentally, that was a strikingly different position from the one the paper took in 1998 when a Manhattan stage production featured a gay Jesus having sex with his disciples. There, any anguish suffered by faithful Christians went unmentioned in the paper’s ringing defense of free expression.

Hypocrisy isn’t the only problem. There’s an awful lot of ignorance out there about what the First Amendment means.

“Free speech, or deliberately provocative?” asked the Christian Science Monitor after Garland, apparently oblivious to the possibility that something could be both.

Texas attack refocuses attention on fine line between free speech and hate speech,” read a headline in the Los Angeles Times.

But that’s nonsensical. Under American law, there’s no such line, fine or not. “[T]here is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment,” says law professor Eugene Volokh. “Hateful ideas (whatever exactly that might mean) are just as protected under the First Amendment as other ideas.”

And rightly so, because one person’s hate speech is another person’s pointed criticism. What looks like gratuitous offense to a devoutly religious person is simply critique to a non-believer.

People are comfortable spouting the cliche that the First Amendment protects unpopular speech. But too often, the unpopular speech they have in mind is that of Patrick Henry in 1775 or Vietnam protesters in 1970 — brave voices speaking truth to power.

When it comes to speech by real people on our television screens — speakers viewed as vile or crazy or divisive — many Americans don’t see the need to protect it.

But consider that Patrick Henry was pretty divisive in his day. Dangerous, even (he was, after all, trying to incite a revolution). And many thought the Vietnam protesters said things that were hateful — to soldiers, to veterans, to authority figures.

The problem with protecting only “valuable” speech is that we have no idea how valuable ideas are until they’ve been aired, debated, and tested. An opinion that seems worthless or threatening in one decade can be an uncontroversial principle in another.

And when we shut down speech because it’s “provocative,” we’re handing veto power over our public discourse to people who are willing to use violence to shut others up.

Our judiciary, fortunately, seems to understand this. The U.S. Supreme Court continues to be staunchly protective of free speech, in most cases by wide margins.

In a case involving hateful speech by anti-gay activist Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, for example, the court held by a vote of 8-1 that the speech was protected.

But expect our would-be censors to continue their quest. Ironically, they present their position as one of sophistication and nuance, of modernity. If only we American rubes would wise up and adopt some sensible and modern speech limits like the rest of the world, they sigh.

But our American free-speech experiment is in actuality a bright spot in a grim and ongoing human history of locking people up — or worse — for saying things other people don’t like. Long may it continue.

Laurie Lin is a Daily Mail columnist. Contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @wvpundette.


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