Freedom of Speech, Internationally: Where do we draw the line?

In 1789 James Madison introduced the Bill of Rights to the House of Representatives.  When they finally were ratified by the States in 1791, rights such as freedom of speech and expression were given protection against government intrusion. Since then, the Supreme Court has defined limits to what speech is accepted as protected speech, and what speech goes outside the boundaries of protected speech. The freedoms we enjoy in the United States are robust in comparison to many areas of the world, and in particular, the Middle East. In general, American jurisprudence appreciates the value of ideas, both good and bad, entering the so called ‘marketplace of ideas.’ The notion is that all ideas are protected speech, and it is our hope that the bad ideas will ultimately lose as public opinion drowns them out with good ideas. Practically, this means that Americans can say almost anything they wish, and when those viewpoints are seen as extreme, the rest of the American community will ignore their thoughts as being crazy.

Unfortunately, in today’s modern world, American’s free speech reaches beyond its borders. With the ever-growing technological universe making the world smaller and smaller, the actions of a few can have a much greater impact than we could previously have foreseen. Recently, an American created a video that angered many in the Muslim world, inciting rioting and violence, and placing many western embassies (Including several US embassies) in danger. While this “speech” fits within the American parameters of protected speech, it placed many American lives in danger, and resulted in violent backlashes across the world. The way that this video came across to the American public was far different then how it was perceived on an international level, especially to those who already hate America. To those individuals, this video just added fuel to their fire.

The question I have is, even if we agree that this type of speech should be tolerated, what happens when the backlash results in American deaths? What if the speech of a small few incites violence across the world that causes more and more terrorism? And if we agree that in those cases, speech should be limited, where do we draw the line?

2 comments

  1. The first amendment states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This is one of the most important rights we have as Americans and separates us from other countries. I believe that this is not something that should be curtailed because it results in violence and death in other corners of the world. If the speech is being performed within the United States of America, on our soil, I do not believe that the government should restrict it because of the reaction of a select group of individuals. We have protected and unprotected speech in this country that deal with this precise issue and if a certain form of speech falls under unprotected speech, then the government can do what it feels necessary. As it is, hate speech and fighting words are still often protected, so I do not believe someone expressing their view or opinion on a matter, warrants government intervention despite the unfortunate consequences of death and violence in other areas of the world.

  2. I think it is too difficult to suppress certain ideas because there could be an adverse reaction by a group of individuals in a different country. There is no logical or practical way to decide what comments should be censored in order to prevent violence abroad. What might seem as a harmless comment to a vast majority, could inflame one particular individual who goes off on a rampage. The whole idea of freedom of speech, as the author pointed out, is that it allows all ideas, good and bad, to enter the marketplace. While the video in question was obviously inflammatory, to restrict the creators ability to express their opinions based on a possible reaction would be going too far.

    There are instances where the freedom of speech can be curtailed, like yelling “fire” in a crowded place, for the safety of others, however to implement a similar ban in this situation would lead us down a slippery slope. What might be offensive to one group of people might be considered mild to another and to implement a complete ban would see freedom of speech whittled down to nearly nothing. What we can all hope for is that the individuals who choose to make comments about sensitive subjects will be more aware of the consequences of their words and will think twice about making them.

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