Monthly Archives: September 2012

Letting Murderers Write the Law: Stop Calling for Less Free Speech

The Westboro Baptist Church ( pickets the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan because they fought for a country that tolerates homosexuality.  Church members spend their time shouting slogans and waving signs reading God is Your Enemy, Pray for More Dead Soldiers, and Thank God for IEDs.  Unlike the YouTube community, the grieving families cannot ignore these outrageous insults shouted directly at them at their loved ones’ funerals.  The burial of their sons and daughters is tarnished forever.

Free Speech

In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church’s right to hold these protests at funerals.

I consider myself a First Amendment purist, but the case of Westboro Baptist Church gave me pause.  The case of The Innocence of Muslims does not.

In the aftermath of the embassy attacks in Benghazi, many promising things have happened.  Libyan protesters drove the militia thought to be responsible for the killing from Benghazi.  Muslim political and religious leaders condemned violence as a response to speech, even blasphemous speech.  A public conversation seems to be unfolding within the Islamic world about ways to respond to blasphemy, and it’s the first one I’ve ever seen.

At the same time, some Americans have begun calling for a narrower reading of the first amendment.  Keep in mind that this conversation is only happening because of violence.

Here are some of the arguments for narrower freedoms:

Argument 1: We’re an outlier globally.  Political Scientist Erik Bleich made this argument in an al-Jazeera column last week.  Most Western countries, he says, have recognized the need for common-sense restrictions on free speech as a way of maintaining order.  He points out that even Danish government, in the wake of the Jyllends-Posten cartoon scandal, suspended the broadcasting license of a radio announcer who called for exterminating some Muslims.

Incitement is different from mockery and insult.  The Innocence of Muslims was not incitement. The Danish government did not punish Jyllends-Posten, so his example is irrelevant.

Next, Bleich gives us a preview as to what sort of standard a new free speech restriction might employ.  He cites polls to show that most Americans believe “that people should not be allowed to say things in public that might offend racial groups” (Emphasis mine).  Well, what might that include?  And what federal agency will pre-screen YouTube videos and render decisions?  And what will the punishment be for saying something that might offend racial groups?

Mr. Bleich is right that most states do not interpret the First Amendment as broadly as we do.  But what if we apply his lemming-like thinking to other areas of social policy?  For example, a majority of people in the world also oppose homosexuality—not gay marriage, but homosexuality itself.  That doesn’t make it right to do so.

Argument 2: The sacredness of the First Amendment emerged by accident.  Eric Posner’s astounding column in Slate argues that, while the First Amendment was written quite some time ago, no one really cared until the 1960s, when liberals and conservatives began trying to appropriate it to silence their cultural foes.  Therefore, our attachment to the First Amendment is nothing more than a historical contingency.

Well, so what?  What social norms aren’t historically contingent?

Posner also criticizes the U.S. government’s “timid” handling of Google , which amounted to merely asking Google to check the video again for terms of use violations.  It seems he wants not only for laws to change, but for the President to break them in the meantime.

He ends with this:

“And so combining the liberal view that government should not interfere with political discourse, and the conservative view that government should not interfere with commerce, we end up with the bizarre principle that U.S. foreign policy interests cannot justify any restrictions on speech whatsoever. Instead, only the profit-maximizing interests of a private American corporation can.”

Oh, please.  This is the kind of paragraph that only appeals to people who automatically get angry when they read the word “corporation.”  The corporation didn’t restrict speech.  It just made a decision about where it would project that speech itself.  That has nothing to do with restricting the filmmaker’s rights—Google just exercised its own.

Most tellingly, Mr. Posner describes The Innocence of Muslims as “a video that, by the admission of all sides, has no value whatsoever.”  This standard is clearer than Bleich’s: if no one will admit that a piece of expression has value, the maker goes to jail!

By making “value” his standard, Mr. Posner shows that he has no understanding of the principle of free speech: the premise isn’t that all expression has value, but that no one deserves the power to assign that value on our behalf.

Argument 3: The West is hypocritical.  Two recent examples of this argument: Many, including Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, have pointed out that many Western countries imprison Holocaust deniers but not blasphemers against Islam.  They are right: there is a hypocrisy here.  But it should be resolved by legalizing Holocaust denial, not by banning blasphemy.  Also, for what it’s worth, Holocaust denial is legal in the United States.

Second, Egyptian journalist Mona el-Tahawy was just arrested for spraying graffiti on an ad in the New York subway systems which calls Palestinians “savages” and calls for a fight against “jihad.”  Facebook and Twitter abound with condemnations of this double standard; why arrest el-Tahawy but let those responsible for the poster off the hook?  Well, the posters are vile, but it’s not hypocritical to arrest al-Tahawy.  Whatever you think of the poster or of her actions, graffiti-spraying on public property is against the law—a law that the racists who bought that ad space didn’t break.

“No amount of violence should intimidate the United States into changing its laws,” writes Erik Bleich, right after he advocates changing the laws.  I believe that Mr. Bleich, Mr. Posner, and the many other writers advocating less freedom of speech really think they haven’t been intimidated.  But they have.  They aren’t worried about speech that merely expresses hatred.  For them, unacceptable speech is defined by the violent reaction it incurs.  That’s called letting murderers write the law.

A Few Thoughts on Libya

This week, I started my internship at the State Department, working on Middle Eastern issues.  Many of my new colleagues knew and worked with Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, who was murdered, along with three other Americans, in Benghazi yesterday.  The killings apparently came in retribution for the posting on YouTube of a trailer for a low-budget, obscure movie that had nothing to do with Ambassador Stevens or the U.S. government and that would certainly have otherwise remained unknown to the American public.

No Excuse

The murders were outrageous, inexcusable, and—what’s the word apologists for these acts always use—offensive.  Not only that: they would have been just as inexcusable and outrageous had the victims been the makers of the movie.  The degree of offense caused by a movie, cartoon, or any other form of expression is absolutely irrelevant to the moral justification for taking up violence in response.  Being offended is no excuse, and no mitigating circumstance, for murder.

It’s not that the video wasn’t offensive.  The point is, it doesn’t matter whether it was or not (indeed, in this case offense may not have even been the motive).  There are plenty of offensive videos out there.  The U.S. Government did not promote, endorse, finance, applaud, refer to, or know about this video until its diplomats were murdered over it.  The murders, not the video, are why the White House and State Department are involved.  And the murders, not the video, are all they should be condemning.

Generally, that’s what they did.  The only clause that didn’t focus on the victims or on condemning the attacks came in the second paragraph of the White House’s prepared statement: “While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others…” Secretary Clinton’s remarks didn’t even go that far.  She focused entirely on honoring the dead and condemning the killers.  The video in particular was never referred to in either statement, and no blame was placed, even implicitly, on anyone but the killers.  While I do think the administration should have been completely unequivocal, it did strike the right tone in general.

Romney Repudiated

The same cannot be said of the Romney campaign, which took that grain of truth and turned it into an overstated, ill-timed, tasteless distortion that further raised the eyebrows of a public already skeptical of the Republican candidate’s ability to handle delicate diplomacy.  Although the right-wing fringe stood by the nominee, the reaction of most GOP leaders, normally Borg-like in their reflexive condemnation of the President and anxious to project a united front as the campaign heats up, ranged from silent to critical of RomneyMost importantly, even if the President’s statement equivocated somewhat, I have little doubt that any president would have done the same given the stakes in the region and the desire to retain the good will of the Muslim population at large.

Here Is the Outrage

I’m sure you’ve heard someone say something like this after some heinous act of violence in the Middle East: “Where is the outcry among the Muslims?  Why do they only protest American policies and Quran burnings and not the murder and sabotage that follow?”  Good questions.  But this time, they’re being answered.  These are the first photographs I’ve ever seen of protesters in the Arab world, publicly opposing acts of violence that came in response to insults against Islam.  Many of them do so unequivocally.