Free-Speech Fundamentalism

DOES THE RIGHT to free speech include the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded social network?

That’s one of the questions raised by the violent overreaction by some Muslims to the 14-minute YouTube video clip, Innocence of Muslims.

Of course, my question paraphrases the words of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in deciding that speech likely to cause immediate violence could be restricted. However, over the course of the 20th century, the American standard for limiting potentially harmful speech has gotten a lot tougher. For the past 50 years or so, it’s been settled law in the U.S. that the First Amendment protects speech that is, like Innocence of Muslims, false, hateful, malevolent, and even very badly written, acted, and produced. But the Internet Age is bringing new challenges to America’s free-speech fundamentalism.

Tolerance of blasphemous, racist, and defamatory material is commonplace to most Americans. We take it as one of our God-given rights. But, in fact, this is a real example of American exceptionalism. No other liberal democracy in the world protects speech that is plainly intended to wound and insult members of a specific racial or religious group. “Hate speech” prohibitions are the rule throughout the Western world.

The internet, however, is an American invention. It is dominated by American companies, and, when it comes to free speech, the internet plays by American rules (except maybe when it comes to China). We were reminded of this over the summer when a phalanx of Silicon Valley corporate bigwigs joined privacy and civil liberties advocates to promote an international “Declaration of Internet Freedom.” The declaration is a manifesto of general principles that opposes censorship, supports net neutrality, and includes the crucial principle (especially dear to the heart of Google-owned YouTube) that a service provider should never be held responsible for the actions of its users.

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