Free speech: What it is and what it isn’t

I started to write this post during the uproar in the Middle East over a movie trailer, but as it got longer, I never had time to finish it. However, this still seems like a good time to talk about the First Amendment to the US Constitution and free speech. (Of course, being me, it’s nearly always a good time to talk about the First Amendment, which is #1 on my list of top ten constitutional amendments. But I digress.)

Just a reminder…here is the text of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

ObDisclaimer: I am absolutely positively not a lawyer. If I make any errors or misunderstand a legal issue, let me know.

One night at dinner I had a very interesting discussion with a family friend about the dreadfully bad video that supposedly was the cause of the violence around American embassies in Egypt and Libya. It was an enjoyable debate over (among other things) whether the US government should have done something about the video, whose childish taunts about Islam should have prompted eyerolling rather than riots and murder.

(As Jon Stewart noted on the Daily Show, when Egyptian television aired a show promoting the blatantly anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion, we Jews got our revenge the old-fashioned way: a bad review in the Times. But I digress again. I suspect I’m going to do that a lot, so bear with me.)

Alas, in some parts of the world, an insult to religion is seen as being worth killing over. And obviously, this is me, so I think that’s idiocy of the highest order, but today I’d like to address the US side of this.

Should the US government have pulled the video? Should they prosecute the producer/writer/director? Is this speech that is protected by the First Amendment? Should it be protected?

No. No. Yes. Yes.

Oh…I’m sorry, you probably wanted some details, huh? My argument is that the First Amendment is too fundamental to our civilization for us to take the chance of undermining it. Before the government acts to censor speech, we need to be absolutely positively certain that the speech is the equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded theater (as the classic example goes).

If we allow (or force!) the government to censor any speech that we don’t like, we have to remember that we’re opening the door to censoring speech we do like.

In addition, when we encourage the government to pull movies with poor production values that insult Islam because we’re afraid it might incite Muslims to violence, that’s what’s known as the Heckler’s Veto.

Now, as it happens, I think the movie trailer was terrible and I think the world would be better off without that movie ever airing anywhere. But…what if next time the hecklers target people criticizing (or insulting, even) the Democratic Party? Or insulting the Republican Party? Or the United States?

What if Fox News fans threatened to riot if Jon Stewart is allowed to insult Bill O’Reilly? Does that mean the government should censor his show? I would hope that the obvious answer to that is “no!”

What if Christians threatened to riot and kill people because PZ Myers (or me) pointed out that Christianity is hilariously absurd? Should our blogs be censored by the government?

What if atheists threatened to riot and kill people because of one of the bazillion Youtube videos that say atheists are immoral, unethical, and untrustworthy Satan-worshippers? (I wish I were exaggerating, by the way.) Does that mean that the government should censor Christians who criticize atheists? Obviously not.

Safety first

The point of the First Amendment is that the government cannot censor speech just because it doesn’t like it. Censoring that speech must serve a direct safety purpose, like that proverbial fire in a crowded theater.

But (I hear you cry) the movie caused people to kill the US Ambassador to Libya! We should censor it because it’s hate speech that incited people to murder!

Really. Is that so. (I say with considerable sarcasm.) How coincidental that at a time when US relations with various countries in the Middle East are in flux and a time of unrest when various forces are trying to control newly emerging democracies, a great mob of people just happened to notice one tiny 15-minute movie trailer that nobody in the US had actually noticed yet.

Yup, clearly this video is the gravest insult to Islam that has appeared since Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses, right?

No, not right at all. Have you seen the Internet? I could find you a hundred books, videos, recordings, and websites that are just as insulting, if not more so, without the slightest bit of effort. (No, I won’t link to this stuff. Five minutes with Google and poorly chosen keywords can find you more hate speech than you’d ever care to encounter in your entire life.)

What the First Amendment is

The First Amendment protects us from government censorship of our speech. So, the government and its agents are not allowed to jail you for saying that you hate President Obama or think Governor Romney would have been the worst president since James K. Polk.

The police cannot confiscate your computer for writing on the Internet that you hate the United States or think American Idol is a dumb TV show.

Your “right to free speech” means that you may express your opinions in any legal fashion without fear of government or official reprisal, so long as your speech does not endanger others.

What the First Amendment isn’t

The First Amendment does not protect you from all consequences of your speech. If I say that you are an idiot and you get mad and refuse to speak to me again, my right to free speech has not been abridged.

If you get home and call 10 friends and say “OMG, Mara just call me an idiot. Let’s all never speak to her again”, then my right to free speech has not been abridged.

If you go home and ban me from commenting on your blog and your Facebook wall, then my right to free speech has not been abridged. (Private spaces are not required to allow me a forum for my speech. If I want to say Christians are icky, I can get my own blog. Um, not that I’m saying that…)

If I am the owner of, say, a restaurant, and I say that I think Christians are kind of icky, and Christians not only refuse to come to my restaurant but also tell their friends not to come, my right to free speech has not been abridged.

The First Amendment does  not protect you from the consequences of being dumb, only from being arrested for being dumb.

However…if I (as the owner of that hypothetical restaurant) say that Christians are icky and then the mayor of the next town refuses to let me open a new restaurant because of my statement, that’s a problem. It’s somewhere between potentially and probably a First Amendment problem, because it’s the government attempting to punish me for my speech.

Why should I care?

Clearly I think that the First Amendment is important. I firmly believe that the rest of our rights and our fundamental freedoms are based on the rights enumerated in that concise statement. We have the right to freedom of religion, free speech, a free press, and the right to complain to the government and be answered.

On the one hand, it’s very important that real dangers to freedom of speech need to be addressed. Censorship is one of the greatest dangers to our way of life and even when we find speech objectionable, we should think very hard before trying to ban it. (For example, I hate the Westboro Baptist Church as  much as the next normal human being, and possibly even more, but I’m very resistant to any attempts to ban them using government/police action.)

On the other hand, we shouldn’t spend too much of our energy listening to people whining about supposed dangers to their right to free speech that show they have no idea what the First Amendment actually means.

You got banned from a blog for being an ass? Awww, shucks. A magazine refuses to publish your weekly nutty letters to the editor explaining how Queen Elizabeth II and the American Medical Association are plotting to take over the world? Yeah, not feeling your pain. People walk away or block you on Facebook when you try to explain why their political views are wrong? Sucks to be you.

The First Amendment is important and complex. I’ve only touched on the very surface of what it means and how it affects our life. I highly recommend you do the further reading below, written by people who are much smarter than me 🙂

Further reading/listening

Sam Harris, On the Freedom to Offend an Imaginary GodI don’t always agree with Sam Harris on things, but this is pretty awesome

Popehat (Ken), Three Generations of a Hackneyed Apologia for Censorship Are Enough

Popehat (Ken), There’s No Right Not To Be Offended, Except When I’m Offended

Pharyngula (PZ), Free Speech is Not Freedom from Responsibility

The Kojo Nnamdi Show, What Secularism Is…and Isn’t
As part of this discussion, Kojo’s guest talks about “The Innocence of the Muslims” and what the governmental response should be. I cheered when I heard him.


About mamamara

I'm a 40-something, work-at-home mother of two. I'm pro-vaccine, pro-medicine, pro-science, and an avid reader of information about all of the above, and I want to combine my love for my children with my love for science. So here we are!
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