Set aside such unacceptable (and criminal) “clear and present” dangers such as shouting Fire in a crowded theater, as a journalist I have always thought of myself as something of a First Amendment absolutist. That’s being tested these days. The cornerstone of democracy is having a vigorous marketplace of ideas, where all ideas, regardless of merit, are tested, validated or refuted – with other ideas. The presumption is that from the melee will emerge the truth.
As Americans, we are imbued with the idea of free speech, along the lines of “I disapprove of what you say but will defend to death your right to say it,” (sometimes attributed to Voltaire.) We have expanded the right to include not only the freedom to express ourselves but to have access to the information necessary to form our opinions.
Okay, so that is the theoretical and philosophical framework, but can we apply that to the incendiary short film Innocence of Muslims? The offensive, grotesque attack on Muhammad has been out for months but only ignited this month when an Egyptian-American Coptic Christian sent it viral.
We know what has happened since – four courageous Americans in the foreign service, including the remarkably effective ambassador Christopher Stevens, killed in Benghazi, Libya, an attack and flag burning at the American embassy in Cairo, and anti-American demonstrations in some 18 other countries.
All because of this disrespectful inflammatory piece of video trash? Other reports suggest that anti-American attacks were organized as part of 9/11 remembrance strategies, retaliation for drone attacks and the like, and that the video was just an accelerant for previously planned events. The outcome is tragic, whatever the precipitating cause.
Free speech, right of assembly and other democratic precepts are often hard to figure out in a newly emerging democracy, alien to formerly authoritarian regimes. Even when our own new democracy was new, in the 17th century, conviction for blasphemy – another form of freedom of speech – meant capital punishment. We had to evolve from that backward practice. So too do the new “democracies” of the Arab Spring. When their governments are fundamentalist, things are even more complicated.
Innocence of Muslims, as with the Danish anti-Muslim cartoons in 2005, the 1979 neo-Nazis’ march in the Jewish suburb of Skokie, Illinois and anti-Semitic blood libels kept alive by some in the Arab media remind us that First Amendment protections aren’t there primarily for widely accepted expression. They are there to protect minority viewpoints, however stupid, incendiary, obnoxious, hateful, damnable…..no matter how much we may want to wring the necks of those who promote the garbage.
This is very very hard. Google removed the 14-minute video in Egypt and Libya because of the danger. But when are such restrictions appropriate? With instantaneous global communication, do we need to rethink “clear and present danger?” We certainly want governments here and abroad to crack down on the violence, irrespective of how “insulted” the mobs may be by the precipitating content. However, we don’t want our government to crack down on speech itself. We don’t want to cave to a “heckler’s veto.” That would mean the terrorists who flame hate and carnage will have won, right?
Clearly, it will take people inside and outside government to condemn the abuses and try to persuade those self-same idiots to understand the potential consequences of their exercise of free speech, a right that brings responsibility along with it. (The same thing would apply to violent video games that, in some instances, have inspired imitative behavior.)
It will be especially difficult for the leaders of the nascent Arab Spring democracies, who, for short term political gain, aren’t inclined to insist that freedom comes with responsibilities. It’s hard to articulate and maintain such enlightened principles when so many in their populations are mired in pre-enlightenment hostility to modernity itself. Think Pakistan when considering how long the road will likely be.
Here at home our hard fought First Amendment freedoms have to be protected, but this week I find myself wondering what price we should have to pay.
I welcome your comments in the section below.