Why are Americans (in particular) so attached to free speech, even repugnant free speech? Why is the first item in our Bill of Rights (i.e. the First Amendment to our Constitution) devoted to its protection? Our strong defense of free speech rests largely, in my view, on three beliefs held by most Americans.
The first is that it is our right and our responsibility to decide for ourselves what to read, view or listen to. We turn to ourselves and our families first and to our communities and our government second and third for most things. No one is absolutely self-reliant (even Robinson Crusoe had his man Friday), but Americans have historically been more self-reliant than most any other people. We trust our own judgment more than that of a public morality police. Though we often turn to trusted advisors in our churches or communities for guidance, we choose whose guidance we respect. No one has a stronger interest in our getting it right than we do ourselves. I don’t buy the paternalistic argument of some “do gooders” that the poor or uneducated just don’t care.
The second belief, born of centuries of experience and accumulated evidence, is that government power is always in danger of being corrupted to the service of those in power if not carefully checked and balanced. If government had the power to control what we heard, it would, sooner or later, be abused. If government is able to filter what we see and hear, it will not be able to resist filtering out information inconvenient to or critical of itself.
The third belief is that competition in ideas and information as well as in the provision of goods and services will reward the truth and drive out falsehood. This issue of discovering the truth is complicated. These days anyone can say anything and post it on the Internet. However, it doesn’t generally take long for the truth to crowed out lies (the claims that Ambassador Stevens body had been sodomized or that American Embassy Marine guards did not have live ammunition come to mind). To the extent that we trust the statements of our government it is only because we know that we (and the press) are free to contradict it if we have contrary evidence.
Our strong defense of free speech does not obligate us to defend the content of that speech. The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that “’both the mentality and the organization behind this movie and those perpetrating terrorist actions exploiting Islamic symbols and discourse’ were equally to be condemned.” (The Washington Post “Anti US fury widens in Muslim world” 15/9/2012). Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the offending video “disgusting and reprehensible.” She was right to say so, though I found the film merely pathetic. We defend the right of the cretins who made this film to make it and to show it where ever they can convince some company or person to do so while also defending our right to denounce it.
This brings us to the “Muslim” reaction to the film. Many Muslims around the world have complained loudly about pictures or films that denigrate Mohammed, as do many Christians when pictures or films denigrate Jesus. That is simply an exercise of free speech. But what about demonstrations at American Embassies? “The right of the people peaceably to assemble,” is merely one of the means of exercising free speech and is also protected by the First Amendment to our Constitution.
Attacking our Embassies and their officials and employees is quite another matter. Muslims are wrong to do this and their governments should not allow it. I hope that you stumbled at my broad brushed attribution of this violence to “Muslims”. If you didn’t you should have. Muslims did not kill four Americans in Benghazi or set various American properties on fire in several countries. “It is no more accurate to condemn the Muslim world for the atrocities of a relative few than it is to indict America because one lowbrow decides to upload a lousy flick that nobody otherwise would watch or even know about.” (Kathleen Parker, “In Libya and America-imbeciles affecting foreign policy” 14/9/2012.) Individuals did these things, each with their own motives. What drew people to these demonstrations? Who are they and what are their goals? In Benghazi, the murderers may have been al-Qaeda linked. The attacks in Egypt were primarily lead by hard line Islamists groups against the somewhat more tolerant and moderate new government of the Muslim Brotherhood. (David Ignatius, “Cairo and Libya attacks point to radicals jockeying for power” The Washington Post 12/9/2012)
Not everyone in the world understands or accepts our strong commitment to free speech. Our self-interest calls for us to carefully explain to the rest of the world its value and importance for the kind of societies that respect individuals that we want to live in.