The Difficulty of Free Speech
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
It is easy to defend free speech for journalists, political groups, and everyday people. It becomes harder to defend free speech for pornographic and violent content. And the defense of speech that almost everyone finds utterly distasteful is sometimes a Herculean task.
When people talk about defending the right to deny the Holocaust, rosy principles of free speech look dim and many people are understandably left to wonder exactly what social good and value is to come from the defense of such speech. Slippery slope arguments carry little weight as people scoff at the naïve black-and-white binary nature of such arguments. Alan Dershowitz's pet example of how he would support the right of neo-Nazis to peacefully* march through Jewish neighborhoods would strike all but the most staunch civil libertarians as aloof and overly idealistic. While I am staunchly libertarian and idealistic when it comes to such matters, most people, understandably, are not and require arguments of pragmatism. In the end, we have overblown racial hysteria when an art project that resembled a cross was burned** and a number of European governments whose lofty stances on liberties are marred by bans on Holocaust denial.
The New York Times published a review that criticized the handling of a new documentary on the Armenian Genocide on PBS. For those who are not familiar with it, the Ottoman Empire is accused of killing about 1 million Armenian civilians within its borders during WWI. The Turkish government, however, has been and is currently still in denial; the trial in Turkey of an author accused of "insulting" the state for talking about the Genocide made the news just a few months ago. PBS broadcast the documentary this evening, and because of Turkey's continuing denial, it was going to broadcast a panel debate tomorrow pitting two deniers against two affirmers. However, due to pressure from the Armenian lobby and from Congress, a number of PBS stations will not broadcast this debate because of the offensiveness of the Turkish state-sponsored denial of this event. The Times made an excellent case for the broadcast of the debate: it would show just how deluded the deniers are. Without the airing of this debate, the deniers would be armed with rhetorical ammunition as they point to this and cry Armenian conspiracy, and those who are trying to break through the Turkish government's censorship and tight grip on the debate of the issue would be labeled as hypocrites.
As another example, the cartoon controversy may not have degenerated as much if laws against Holocaust denial did not exist in Europe. Instead, Muslims were very quick to harp on the hypocrisy of the West's free speech defense: how is it free speech if anti-Semitic speech is banned but not anti-Islamic? The vast majority of arguments that I have read from the Muslim side have pointed out this glaring discrepancy. How can you expect them to cherish and to respect Western values when the West does not do so itself?
History has shown us that the restriction of speech, even outrageous speech, usually backfires. It makes martyrs out of wicked and hypocrites out of the righteous. However, this is not to say that nothing should be done about such fringe speech. The best way to combat speech that one does not agree with is not through a clamp-down but instead through an engagement in debate and through the use of speech to counter that of the offender. As the Times points out, the panelists pits a "condescending and defensive" denial against an affirmation that is "smooth and [kept] cool", and as The Economist's editorial board pointed out last month, "[F]ar better to let those who deny well-documented facts expose themselves to ridicule than pose as martyrs."
* Of course, there are definite limits set for speech. The classic "shouting fire" scenario where false speech such as shouting fire in a crowded theatre results in immediate action that leads to death or injury (by way of a panicked stampede) is one such example. In criminal law, credible verbal threats can be prosecuted as assault, and in 2002, the Supreme Court upheld that cross burning is illegal if the intent is intimidation. This is why Dershowitz is careful to stipulate that the march be peaceful.
** A few years ago, some drunken students on a deserted campus during winter break burned an art project that resembled a cross. Ignoring that there was no audience, much less an intended audience, that there was no evidence of racist or otherwise sinister intent, and that there was no evidence to suggest that the cross-like shape of the object was anything more than an unfortunate coincidence, the Claremont Colleges erupted in a fury of outrage that was grossly disproportionate to the act and the students received punishments that were inappropriate for the simple crime of drunken art project destruction.