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TYRRELL: Keep free speech free

Liberty extinguished by well-intentioned exceptions

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I am grateful to George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley for pointing out that a growing number of world leaders find the First Amendment's right of free speech to be an inconvenience. He cites, for instance, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's warning that "when some people use this freedom of expression to provoke or humiliate some others' values and beliefs, then this cannot be protected." Mr. Turley makes the valuable -- and, if you think about it, obvious -- observation that free speech becomes intolerable not when it is used recklessly but when one person or a group of people object to its use, especially when they object violently.

Thus, the secretary-general's neat formulation collapses when, say, some heiress to Mother Teresa asseverates in public that "God is the source of all good." It is a harmless utterance until some indignado, say, a venerable witch, gets wind of it and objects with hurt feelings or, more preferably, with violence by burning down Mother Teresa's chapel. This Mother Teresa happens to be influential worldwide and, she has a whole string of chapels to burn down; possibly some are diplomatic installations. Free speech is difficult to limit. Without limiting it, it can be disagreed with. It can be ridiculed, or it can be ignored. However, as soon as we come up with some nice neat formulation for limiting it, a la Ban Ki-moon, along comes a mob of brutes, and they put free speech to the test. Under the secretary-general's formulation, free speech gives way. In fact, it is extinguished.

That was the lesson from the eruption of violence around the globe over the idiotic YouTube masterpiece of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, "Innocence of Muslims." In America, hardly anyone saw it. In the Arab world, my guess is only the makings of a small mob or two saw it. Yet it was used as a pretext for violent protest and thus for such lawyerly poppycock as was spewed by Mr. Ban and others. Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia has said, "Our tolerance must never extend to tolerating religious hatred." Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has delivered an equally muddled declaration on tolerance and free expression, arguing for the adoption of a U.N. resolution that would simultaneously guarantee "the right to practice one's religion freely and the right to express one's opinion without fear." Try enforcing that resolution in Benghazi, Madame Secretary of State.

Freedom of speech is being diminished, Mr. Turley says, "not from any single blow but rather from thousands of paper cuts of well-intentioned exceptions designed to maintain social harmony." I am not sure they are "well-intentioned." Rather I consider them the fatuous efforts of politicians intent on riding out the storm. They hope the enemies of freedom will be placated temporarily or at least until the politician retires. I am not so sure they will get their way. As Mr. Turley says, there are thousands of cuts. Eventually, free expression could be extinguished.

He cites opposition to blasphemous speech, hate speech, discriminatory speech and deceitful speech. That accounts for a lot of "paper cuts." The aggrieved groups keep growing and the defenders of free speech keep fighting off ever more enemies. Now we have the opponents of unhealthy diets opposing commercial free speech. We already disposed of tobacco advertising. Will chocolate be next?

It seems to me freedom of speech must be absolute. Let anyone say anything they please. Let Nakoula Basseley Nakoula or whatever his name is make any film he desires. We do not have to watch it. We can protest it. We can ridicule it. We can even ridicule his idiotic name, replete with its redundancy. Call it hate speech if you will. Call it discriminatory. Just let free expression reign. As for the mob that protests him, they too are free to utter whatever they want in public or in private, so long as they are law-abiding. That is the way we should do it in America. It is, as we say, the Land of the Free. Keep the lawyers, the busybodies and the government away from the First Amendment. That is the American way.

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is founder and editor-in-chief of the American Spectator and an adjunct scholar at the Hudson Institute. He is the author most recently of "The Death of Liberalism" (Thomas Nelson, 2012).

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