No such thing as free speech

MARK TWAIN once wryly observed that Americans had the great good fortune to enjoy the freedom of speech -- and the good sense never to use it.

The violent protests that have erupted in the wake of the publication of cartoons lampooning the prophet Muhammad have sparked a profound debate throughout the Western world over external threats to, and internal limits on, freedom of expression. In both the United States and Europe, defenders of the newspapers that have published the cartoons have invoked the principle of freedom of speech as if it were an inviolable divine law that ought to protect them from all extremists. But the fact is, there is no such thing as free speech. Every time we open our mouths, write an article or draw a cartoon, we weigh the costs and consequences.

Because we live in an extraordinarily heterogenous society, Americans know this truth instinctively, if not consciously. Social etiquette dictates that we don’t discuss religion or politics at a dinner party for fear of giving offense or inciting argument. Even before the invention of political correctness, we tended to be conscious of offending those from different backgrounds. Except for fervent racists, we generally don’t share our thoughts and impressions about this or that ethnic or religious group in mixed company.

And then there’s road rage. How many Angelenos have thought twice about honking at a wayward driver out of fear for their lives? While you have a right to yell obscenities at the jerk who cut you off on the freeway, you would most likely hold your tongue if you suspected the jerk would pull out a gun.


The sensibilities of newspaper editors are not all that different, although they’re more concerned about losing subscribers and advertisers than their lives. Editors may think twice about the importance and newsworthiness of stories and opinions that are likely to provoke vehement reactions from ethnic, racial or religious groups in their audience. And when such articles are published, they generally receive greater editorial scrutiny and fact-checking.

Yet, despite all these self-imposed cultural checks and balances, many Americans still believe that constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech means that they can say whatever they want, wherever they want, without incurring consequences. But the 1st Amendment doesn’t protect you from an angry employer or vengeful fanatic; it simply prohibits the government from passing any law that abridges freedom of speech or of the press. And even that has its limits -- libel laws, restrictions against speech that incites violence, rules against shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

If you say something intemperate, politically insensitive, sexist or otherwise offensive while at work, you risk both legal and social consequences. You could lose your job or, God forbid, your multimillion-dollar endorsement contract with a large soft-drink company. Or you could get a co-worker’s fist in your face. For more than a decade now, I have been writing about race, ethnicity and immigration, and as carefully as I tread, I’ve gotten my share of violent insults and threats from all sides.

So far, only a handful of American newspapers have chosen to publish the offending cartoons of Muhammad. It’s not that we believe in freedom of speech any less than the Danes, but we are infinitely more attuned to the tensions between that freedom and the realities of a diverse society.


After all, Denmark is a remarkably homogenous country, new to the multicultural realities that immigrant nations such as the U.S. and Britain have known for years. Eighty-five percent of Danes belong to the Church of Denmark, although few attend weekly services. Muslims account for only 2% of the population. That means the Jyllands-Posten cultural editor, Flemming Rose, who commissioned the Muhammad caricatures, is the Danish poster child for a dawning reality check.

Rose says he didn’t mean to offend the small, powerless Muslim minority in Denmark but instead wanted to prove his own right to publish whatever he wanted, no matter what. He was rebelling against what he considered a growing climate of self-censorship in a changing Denmark. Even after violence erupted, he told an Italian newspaper that he was happy to have started a “useful debate.” But when people die, it isn’t “dialogue.”

In a perfect world, you and I would agree to hate what bigots say even as we defend their right to say it. In a perfect world, we’d abide by what our mothers taught us: “Sticks and stones may break your bones but words (or images) will never hurt you.” But we don’t live in that world, and neither do the Danes.

There is no excuse for the horrifying, extremist Muslim reaction to the Danish cartoons. But here in the West, even as we deplore belligerent victimhood in the Muslim world and defend the legal right to publish the cartoons in question, we should stop pretending that the freedom of speech is limitless.