Secular Right | Reality & Reason



So Unsophisticated, That First Amendment

Cross-posted on the Corner:

Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago law school frets in Slate:

The universal response in the United States to the uproar over the anti-Muslim video is that the Muslim world will just have to get used to freedom of expression. President Obama said so himself in a speech at the United Nations today, which included both a strong defense of the First Amendment and (“in the alternative,” as lawyers say) and a plea that the United States is helpless anyway when it comes to controlling information. In a world linked by YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, countless videos attacking people’s religions, produced by provocateurs, rabble-rousers, and lunatics, will spread to every corner of the world, as fast as the Internet can blast them, and beyond the power of governments to stop them. Muslims need to grow a thick skin, the thinking goes, as believers in the West have done over the centuries. Perhaps they will even learn what it means to live in a free society, and adopt something like the First Amendment in their own countries.

But there is another possible response. This is that Americans need to learn that the rest of the world—and not just Muslims—see no sense in the First Amendment. Even other Western nations take a more circumspect position on freedom of expression than we do, realizing that often free speech must yield to other values and the need for order.

Where to start?

Well, the piece is worth reading as an interesting justification for a more, uh, flexible approach to free speech. It’s not the first, and it will not be the last.

But it misses a key point: the best (perhaps the only) way that two starkly opposed belief systems can coexist (more or less) peacefully is by mutual acceptance of the fact that neither is likely to be susceptible to change. Recognize that, and, however unwillingly, live and let live has a chance.

In the meantime, Professor Posner should understand that any concessions by the US over free speech will just feed the Islamists’ demand for more (check out how those “circumspect” Europeans have fared). There is no middle ground. And there can be none.

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  • RandyB · September 27, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    The Slate piece mentions the “shouting fire in a theater” analogy, and yesterday Obama told the UN that “The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.” Both of these statements about speech, are only applicable to utterances that are FALSE. Slander is by definition a false statement, and shouting “fire” is the right thing to do if there is one.

    What the Islamophiles are after, is requiring us to treat their beliefs as true, or at least having sufficient basis to be accepted as true by many.

    The greatest intelligence in the universe did not write the Quran in Arabic as its eternal message to mankind. This is abundantly clear from any application of reason. We cannot be under any obligation to treat this as a reasonable belief.

  • Acilius · September 27, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    “the best (perhaps the only) way that two starkly opposed belief systems can coexist (more or less) peacefully is by mutual acceptance of the fact that neither is likely to be susceptible to change.” Undoubtedly so. It is a shame that we can’t learn more from each other, however.

    I suspect that everyone can understand that to the extent you allow someone else to decide what you may hear and see, say and show, that you are rendering yourself powerless against that someone else. It is an act of ultimate trustfulness to enable another person or a group to prevent you from knowing what they are doing when you are not around and to prevent you from telling others what they do when you are around. Therefore, every society must have some form of protection for freedom of expression if its members are to have any autonomy at all. Obviously those protections will take different forms in different societies, as legal systems, family structures, religious hierarchies, etc, differ from society to society. In spite of all those differences, if we did not allow the discussion to degenerate into a fight between people shouting “Islam! Islam!” and people shouting “Free speech! Free speech!,” I think people everywhere could understand why protection of free speech is important.

    Likewise with the other side. I find Kenan Malik very convincing when he argues that the riots and other violence have almost nothing to do with the YouTube clip, and everything to do with power struggles among people trying to seize the mantle of the Defenders of Islam. Here’s a link to his latest post about the topic:

    However, if we avoid the “Islam! Islam!” versus “Free speech! Free speech!” shouting match and talk about our concerns in detail, if we do that on both sides and actually listen to each other, I think we in the West can learn a great deal. Not that the Qur’an is a recitation of speech composed by God- that sort of proposition is within the category of beliefs that are unlikely to change, where we must agree to disagree. I don’t even mean that there’s a lot of beautiful stuff bound up with Islam, though of course there is.

    What I’m chiefly thinking of is the way people in the countries most affected have experienced the West. Let’s see, Libya… Why would people in Libya want to storm a US consulate and kill an American ambassador? What has the US ever done to Libya? Why, nothing at all! Well, okay, there was that thing where we bombed the country until the Gadhafi regime collapsed, but that was almost a year ago. Who even remembers that? How could they be so irrational as to let such ancient hatreds motivate them? It’s a mystery.

  • Snippet · September 27, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    If he is saying, “We shouldn’t expect them to protect free speech IN THEIR JURISDICTIONS.” that would be fine and even welcome. I’m sick and tired of people saying Arabs/Muslims “should” respect free speech. I don’t care if they do or not. If Morsi wants to throw Egyptians in jail for slandering “The Prophet of Islam” fine.

    But what the author seems to be saying is that we (The West) should restrict protections in our jurisdiction because of disapproval on the part of (ahem) certain (ahem) people outside of it. This is, to use an overused word – unacceptable. Ludicrous. Craven.

  • Polichinello · September 27, 2012 at 6:14 pm

    Liberty, Security, Diversity.

    Pick two.

  • Steve Cardon · September 27, 2012 at 7:42 pm

    I strongly agree with all the above (except posner of course). The drafters of the first amendment were extremely sophisticated. They understood all too well how political pressures and temptations might beset the concept of free speech. These situations are nothing new in the history of mankind. If they had thought, in their wisdom, that free speech should be subject to the arbitrary moderation of politicians they would not have gone through the extraordinary step of adding it to the constitution… marvelous speech by Netenyahu to the UN general assembly today… I love that guy!

  • CJColucci · September 27, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    The fact is that the United States is an outlier on the question of what speech can be restricted, and a number of highly civilized, quite free countries restrict a lot more than we do. I happen to like our being an outlier, have no desire to see that change, and would strenuously resist any attempt to change it. But in most of the reasonably civilized parts of the world, most people have, or think they have, far more freedom of speech than they are actually likely to care to use.
    Nevertheless, we should stand up for our way because it is our way, but be prepared to explain ourselves in the manner Acilius suggests. If that doesn’t get us anywhere, then what Snippet said.

  • Contemplationist · September 29, 2012 at 4:41 am

    I hate Oliver Wendell Holmes more every time some dastardly retard misuses his example. I can’t believe I’m the only one. All censorship fans who aren’t sophisticated (even some who are) can be counted on to spout “Shouting fire…” Its frustrating as hell.



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