An Old View on Free Speech, Restated

The assassination of America’s Ambassador to Libya and the storming of the US Embassy in Cairo should remind us that blasphemy, bigotry, and insult, as deplorable as they can be, are the ultimate test of a democracy’s commitment to free speech.

Speech isn’t free at all if we declare that it must reflect the common wisdom, present a noncontroversial stance, or is subject to the political diktat of the State. No, free speech has always been first and foremost about the hard cases, those words and thoughts we despise. I recognize that, among Western peoples, this view might be uniquely American, but that doesn’t mean I hold it to be any less true.

Now, before my initial claim settles into that niche of your brain labeled “cliché,” remember that views we loathe today were often a majority opinion in the past, while those we cherish were sometimes the views of a minority that the State could and often did suppress.

Consider: Free speech is about calling people to Jesus and it is about denying the divinity of Christ. It is about the racist’s venom and it is about the oppressed minority rising in defiance of the oppressor. It is about burning the flag and calling those who burn the flag moral pygmies. It is about others hurting our feelings and us using mockery — not bombs — as our weapon of choice in response. It is, in its most banal modern formulation, the right to be a douchebag and the right to call douchebags douchebags.

There will be those, possibly including some who work at the US Embassy in Cairo, who are ashamed of this aspect of American democracy, who envy Europe’s restrictionist model and argue that the right to speak does not include the right to offend, though they would initially define “offense” to include only the most extreme cases. Yet “offense” is ultimately a subjective measure, and much like Plato’s perfect government, the guardianship of a perfectly “sensitive” government is made impossible by our human failings. What’s more, we should remember that all government power is fungible: the power to “improve” society by censoring speech we deem “hateful” is also the power to “improve” society further by eliminating views the majority simply deems “unhelpful.”

I’m not one for constructing a partisan straw man. President Obama has responded adequately, and Secretary Clinton’s response was better still. Governor Romney has arguably overplayed his political hand during the crisis. But we mustn’t draw the wrong lessons from these attacks. The problem is the violent extremists themselves, not the behavior that “provoked” the violence. To say otherwise is to treat the First Amendment, if not the whole of the US Constitution, the way an apologist for rape treats women wearing short skirts.

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