First published on Finding Uncommon Ground on September 19, 2012.
* * *
There’s a lot of speech that’s offensive and potentially hurtful to people.
Pornography. Song lyrics glorifying misogyny. Talk show punchlines ridiculing southerners, presidents, and Jesus. Derogatory name-calling. “Documentaries” filled with half-truths or bold-faced lies. Flag burning. Military funeral picketing. And that’s just in America. The world is full of critics whose favorite whipping boy is the United States.
Poor taste. Inflammatory. But in America, it’s protected by our First Amendment.
Freedom of speech is a foundational principle of our liberty. The First Amendment protects this right for all Americans regardless of whether we or those in office agree with them. That’s the point. This from the American Civil Liberties Union (highlighting is mine):
The ACLU has often been at the center of controversy for defending the free speech rights of groups that spew hate, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis. But if only popular ideas were protected, we wouldn’t need a First Amendment. History teaches that the first target of government repression is never the last. If we do not come to the defense of the free speech rights of the most unpopular among us, even if their views are antithetical to the very freedom the First Amendment stands for, then no one’s liberty will be secure. In that sense, all First Amendment rights are “indivisible.”
What offends me may be held dear by my neighbor. We do not—we cannot, police people’s beliefs. Unless a threat is made, a law is broken, or a policy like Google’s definition of hate speech or a website’s Community Guidelines is trampled, we do not censor each other.
Proponents of stricter hate speech laws might say we should criminalize certain speech, but where do we draw the line?
It confounds me that in the midst of an international crisis the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey had the time and initiative to call a private citizen like Terry Jones and discuss his promotion of a film. Perhaps next week Dempsey will call my pastor and ask him to stop preaching a literal translation of the first chapter of Romans because gay people may be offended. Dempsey might suggest reformed theologians cease and desist from repeating the creation account of Genesis because it could incense atheists.
You laugh, but what if the tables were turned?
Maybe a more conservative chairman would call the American Humanist Association. Ask them not to criticize the Bible because it’s the sacred text of Christians. And could they kindly stop promoting evolution as fact rather than theory? We wouldn’t want to stir up Bible-believing creationists, now would we?
Imagine the possibilities if we follow and act on this line. Pro-choicers would be forbidden to spread messages that offend pro-lifers who oppose abortion for religious reasons. And pro-lifers couldn’t argue against feminist pro-choicers because that may be construed as discriminating against women. PETA would be prohibited from airing vegan videos and ranchers wouldn’t be allowed to market their beef for fear of offending each other’s deeply held group identities. I can see it now. As the conflict escalates, hordes of animal rights activists storm the offices of the USDA while packs of steak-loving carnivores break through security at the Humane Society.
Nakoula Basseley Nakoula has the right to make his film. I don’t like it. You don’t like it. Doesn’t matter. He has as much right to make his film as Robert Mapplethorpe had to take his photos that included the extremely offensive Piss Christ. Likewise, Jones has as much right to promote Nakoula’s film trailer to his congregation as patrons have to praise Mapplethorpe’s work.
Poor taste. Inflammatory. Still protected.
Besides we’re dealing with folks who don’t care much about the First Amendment we treasure. Consider this from yesterday’s Seattle Times:
“Yes, we understand the First Amendment and all of this stuff,” wrote Khalid Amayreh, a prominent Islamist commentator and blogger in Hebron on the West Bank. “But you must also understand that the Prophet (for us) is a million times more sacred than the American Constitution.”
Constitution, First Amendment, blah, blah, blah… Manipulative terrorists incite mob violence and try to convince us to set dangerous precedents. Their ploy to shift responsibility for their barbaric actions to a film trailer reminds me of a toddler throwing a tantrum because she can’t have a candy bar in the grocery store checkout line. Parents, you know this drill.
If we give in to the toddler this time, what happens on our next trip to the market? Bingo. Another tantrum over another candy bar. Or in the case of the terrorists, more violence, accusations, blame shifting, and demands that we kowtow and censor our citizens’ speech.
All because terrorists refuse to behave like rational human beings. Go figure.