Free Speech in Peril

Spring 2015

Trigger warning: may offend the illiberal or intolerant

Shut up or die. It’s hard to think of a more frontal assault on the basic values of Western freedom than al-Qaida’s January slaughter of French journalists for publishing cartoons they disliked. I disagree with what you say, and I’ll defend to the death my right to make you stop saying it: the battle cry of neo-medievalism. And it worked. The New York Times, in reporting the Charlie Hebdo massacre, flinched from printing the cartoons. The London Telegraph showed the magazine’s cover but pixelated the image of Muhammad. All honor to the Washington Post and the New York Post for the courage to show, as the latter so often does, the naked truth.

The Paris atrocity ought to make us rethink the harms we ourselves have been inflicting on the freedom to think our own thoughts and say and write them that is a prime glory of our Bill of Rights—and that its author, James Madison, shocked by Virginia’s jailing of Baptist preachers for publishing unorthodox religious views, entered politics to protect. Our First Amendment allows you to say whatever you like, except, a 1942 Supreme Court decision held, “the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or ‘fighting’ words—those which by their very utterances inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace,” though subsequent decisions have allowed obscene and profane speech. A 1992 judgment further refined the “fighting words” exemption, ruling that the First Amendment forbids government from discriminating among the ideas that the fighting words convey, banning anti-Catholic insults, for example, while permitting slurs against anti-Catholics. In other words, government can’t bar what we would now call “hate speech”—speech that will cause “anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender.”
This expansive freedom prevails nowhere else on earth. European countries, and even Canada, have passed hate-speech laws that criminalize casual racial slurs or insults to someone’s sexual habits. An Oxford student spent a night in jail for opining to a policeman that his horse seemed gay. France, which has recently fined citizens for antigay tweets and criminalized calls for jihad as an incitement to violence—a measure that our First Amendment would allow only if the calls presented a “clear and present danger”—also (most improperly) forbids the denial of crimes against humanity, especially the Holocaust. The pope has weighed in as well, with the platitude that no one should insult anyone’s religion—or his mother. Continue reading