Free speech in the real world

Mitt Romney was wrong (and, of course, politically motivated) when he insinuated that the U.S. government had offered an “apology for America’s values” by criticizing “Innocence of Muslims,” the now-infamous film that mocks the prophet Muhammad. While it is true that in a statement issued before protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, the embassy staff criticized “continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims,” it didn’t apologize for the fact that the film and other hateful forms of speech are protected by the Constitution.

Romney was guilty of one error: equating condemnation of the content of the bigoted film with a repudiation of the principle that it should be protected under the 1st Amendment. But many in the Muslim world labor under a converse fallacy: that defending the right of the filmmaker to engage in such expression without fear of legal punishment amounts to approval of his message.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton effectively addressed both arguments in a speech Thursday to a gathering of U.S. and Moroccan representatives in Washington. It made for a dramatic contrast to Romney’s rant.


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“I know it is hard for some people to understand why the United States cannot or does not just prevent these kinds of reprehensible videos from ever seeing the light of day,” Clinton said. “Now, I would note that in today’s world with today’s technologies, that is impossible. But even if it were possible, our country does have a long tradition of free expression, which is enshrined in our Constitution and our law, and we do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views no matter how distasteful they may be.”

In addition to stressing that the U.S. government couldn’t suppress “Innocence of Muslims” even if it wanted to, Clinton could have gone on to explain in detail why the U.S. protects free speech, including religiously bigoted and inflammatory speech, with appropriate citations to James Madison, John Stuart Mill and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

But explaining why society should protect “the thought that we hate” (as Holmes put it) can be a complicated undertaking even when the audience consists of Americans. Think of the public outcry over the Supreme Court’s decisions upholding a constitutional right to burn the American flag as a political protest. Convincing Muslims that a film that defames their prophet should be immune to legal sanctions is an exponentially more daunting task.

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Clinton acknowledged in her remarks that there were “different views around the world about the outer limits of free speech and free expression.” But they are not only differences between secular and religious societies or democracies and dictatorships. Thanks to the vigilance of both liberal and conservative Supreme Court justices, the United States is more protective of free speech than are other liberal democracies. For example, Britain has enacted laws against “stirring up hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds” that probably wouldn’t pass constitutional muster in this country.

Given those differences, Clinton understandably put the emphasis elsewhere: on “the simple proposition that violence in response to speech is not acceptable. We all — whether we are leaders in government, leaders in civil society or religious leaders — must draw the line at violence.”

Clinton may not have offered a complete tutorial on freedom of speech in the United States, but neither did she offer an apology for that “American value” — any more than the embassy in Cairo did. And, contrary to what Romney originally suggested, it is possible for the U.S. government simultaneously to affirm the importance of free speech and condemn in unmistakable terms an ugly manifestation of it.