Monday, February 23, 2015

Free speech is not free

"It's the symbol of freedom of speech, of freedom of religion, of democracy, and secularism," Charlie Hebdo’s editor said. Makes one wonder, “What is free speech?”

It protects spoken or written words or acts like the burning of an American flag. But it doesn’t include burning your draft card. It includes a students right not to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. But doesn’t permit the student to write a story for the school newspaper when the administration disagrees.  It does not justify the distribution of obscene materials but does permit politicians to tell obscene lies about one another.

It’s easy to judge the terrorists who raided the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. It’s not so simple to judge Charlie Hebdo.

For most commentators Charlie exercises “freedom of speech.” Pope Francis cautioned, "If my good friend says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It's normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others."
In contrast, Salman Rushdie, the controversial writer whose life was threatened by radical Muslims because of his book "The Satanic Verses" said the right to free speech is absolute or else it isn't free.I’m inclined to agree most with the Pope. Rushdie is clearly incorrect. The right to free speech is not absolute.
Oliver Wendell Holmes articulated the most recognized limitation in a 1919 Supreme Court decision. A man was convicted for inciting violence by publicly opposing the draft during World War I. The Court said he should go to jail despite his “free speech” defense. This is the case that gave rise to the adage that “one cannot shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.”
The iconic phrase emanates from Holmes’ opinion. “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger.”

Charlie Hebdo makes its point by shouting “fire” in a “public theater.” The theater is crowded with more than their own cartoonists. It includes policemen, bystanders, and innocent Muslims who are then targeted by those who seek to avenge Charlie.

Conflicts between radical Islamists and Westerners have converted the earth into a powder keg. The violence didn’t end in Paris. Last week, 45 Christian churches in Niger were burned in that Muslim nation protesting the French cartoonists lampooning of Islam.
Radicals on each side believe if they kill more of the other side, they’ll win. Win what? Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Blindness is the least of today’s problems.

Free speech isn’t a meaningful in isolation. Its exercise demands accompanying exercise of self-restraint, accountability, and personal responsibility.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, (French version of the 1st Amendment of our Constitution reads, “The free communication of thoughts and of opinions is one of the most precious rights of man.”
Precious rights should be cherished, not used as fuses for indiscriminate firebombs. Speech is a tool for reaching understanding. Truth telling can cause divisions, even anger but if that is the sole purpose of using it, the “speaker” degrades the very notion.
The purpose of the attack on Charlie Hebdo was to inhibit the magazine’s use of satire, i.e. to limit Charlie’s use of speech. But the purpose of the doctrine of free speech is not to permit its unrestrained use. If speech was an unlimited right, as Rushdie advocates, one could cry “fire” in a crowded theater even though it may cause the deaths of dozens or hundreds.
Charlie Hebdo isn’t making the world better but rather more dangerous as it insists on getting its way using a self-indulgent tool to create anger. It’s the resulting anger and the predictable destruction accompanying it that is unrestrained, not free speech.

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