Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Myth of Free Speech

A funny thing happened on the way to Paris.  Leaders of a country that had, up until that time, been considered the top advocate for free speech were a no-show at the world’s largest rally for it.

A lot of people applauded the snub.  The media in America and around the globe sprouted columns decrying the “hypocrisy” of some of the free speech advocates, and attacking the “racist,” “Islamophobic” and “insulting” nature of the rhetoric.  The love of free speech, as it turns out, is not nearly as universal or as deep as some had believed.

The backlash was no surprise to me.  There are times when, as a journalist, I have come to fear that the love of free speech is more myth than fact.  Here in 21st century America, we act as if we believe our citizens have a constitutional right not to be offended.  Say the wrong thing and offend the wrong person or group, and you may find yourself ostracized, pilloried in social media or even in mainstream news coverage, and perhaps forced out of your job. 

One recent example is actor Billy Crystal, who had the misfortune of suggesting, in very mild language, that certain sex scenes depicted in the entertainment media go too far and bother him, and then immediately found himself publicly branded a homophobe (this is a guy, mind you, who was one of the very first to play a gay character on TV).  Here’s another:  Actor Benedict Cumberbatch, while advocating for the rights of minority actors, let a previously accepted but now outmoded racial term slip and then found himself under fire from around the globe, for days and days.  And here’s yet another:  This week, a proposed Go Daddy Super Bowl ad that featured a cute little puppy getting sold offended animal rights activists who oppose pet breeding and sales; their howls of outrage (the latter being the most overused and abused word in modern America) succeeded in censoring the ad, thereby imposing this group’s will on everyone.  Other examples abound; these forces manifest themselves in news coverage every single day.  Free speech, in the eyes of millions of our fellow citizens, is well and good as long as it doesn’t step on anyone’s toes, ruffle any feathers, or cross any lines of political correctness.

In Paris, the issue seemed clear enough.  Islamic terrorists attacked Charlie Hebdo, a newspaper famous for lampooning politicians and religious leaders.  The world’s first response to the massacre was anger.  

But then the news coverage began to focus on those having second thoughts.  If free speech insults millions and can get you killed, shouldn’t it have limits?  No less a personage than His Holiness Pope Francis endorsed this idea.  “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult... one cannot make fun of faith,” he said.

Well, yes you can, and sometimes, you really should.  I like this Pope.  I part company with him, however, on this issue.  I do understand where he’s coming from.  As a matter of personal policy, for the most part I neither discuss matters of faith with others nor insult their religion.  My late momma raised me that way.  But even so, I do not recognize your right to require me to respect your beliefs.  You do have a right in America and some other places to practice your religion as you see fit, so long as your conduct does not infringe on the rights of others.  In all cases I have a right to think you’re a whackjob—and to say so if the spirit moves me.  I rarely do say so.  The Utah parents who killed themselves and their children because they feared the apocalypse?  Whackjobs.  Parents who would let their kids die of cancer while waiting for God to work a miracle?  Jobs of whack.  Those who would kill others in the name of religion?  Nuts.  Dangerous ones.  So there, I said it.  I thank whatever power that controls or at least influences the universe that I live in a country where one can still do that.   At least for now.  The future is not so certain.

The pope is not alone in believing there is no absolute right of free speech.  Recently my morning newspaper, the Arizona Daily Star, printed an op-ed from retired educator Marietta Luce criticizing Charlie Hebdo and applauding the president for stiffing that million-person march in Paris.  “Why pour gasoline on the situation just because you can?” she asks, and continues, “As to the right to insult or denigrate others or their beliefs, especially when there is an expectation or possibility of harm to any of us, my question is a simple, ‘Why’?”  Other writers followed up with letters to the editor applauding her comments, agreeing that there should be limits to free speech.

The suggestion that it’s unwise to provoke violent people sounds reasonable.  But it equates the provocation with the response, putting both on the same moral ground.  This is the “look what you made me do” theory of human relations.  It’s the logic women hear when they’re told not to wear clothes that may inflame lust in others, lest they “provoke” a sexual assault.  It’s the reasoning abuse victims hear when they’re told to keep quiet, so as not to “set off” the abuser.

The thrust of this “why pour gasoline” argument is this:  your right to free speech varies inversely with the number of guns those offended might possess.  And here’s an obvious corollary:  If you want to insulate your group from criticism, all you have to do is announce your intention to kill anyone who offends you.  It might take a few shootings and beheadings to convince the public you’re serious.  But then the appeasers will rush to your aid, suggesting to your critics that they keep quiet and refrain from stirring stir the pot for the sake of public safety and world peace.

There are, in fact, perfectly good reasons to place limits on certain kinds of speech.  The famous example is the prohibition of  yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.  But what if the theater really is on fire?  This brings us back to Charlie Hebdo, employees of which got gunned down for angering Islamic extremists—you know, the folks who’ve been running around beheading men and boys, and forcing women and girls into sex slavery, and so on.  Those guys. 

True, as a matter of practice the magazine did not reserve all of its ridicule exclusively for terrorists.  It was an equal opportunity offender.  And a pretty tasteless one at that.  Surely, that’s out of line, right?  Balancing the right to speak against the right not to be offended is not how the concept of free speech works.  Let’s be clear:  inoffensive speech is not the issue.  In America, the right came about specifically to protect speech that some might find offensive and even dangerous.  The freedom was nearly without precedent at the time.  Since then, the right has been difficult to successfully defend and equally difficult for other peoples to win because it does what it’s intended to do:  it protects liberty. 

In fact, arguably freedom of speech is the right from which all others spring.  That’s why the first act of tyrants, totalitarians and terrorists always is to attack it.  The appeasers who would have you tone it down in order to keep the peace give aid and comfort to the enemies of freedom.  They miss the point that it is not only our right, but our moral imperative, to attack, ridicule, mock, criticize, and otherwise deliberately and pointedly offend those who would persecute, enslave and kill others.

As his first act in office, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey induced the legislature to require a civics test of high school graduates.  He got some heat for that, on the grounds that such a test is not necessary.  Not so fast.  In my TV news career I have taken thousands of calls from angry news consumers.  This feedback, 99% of which was designed to slant coverage in favor of the caller’s viewpoints or, barring that, to kill it outright, has left me utterly convinced that a whole lot of Americans have no clue about the importance of free speech in our society or its role in keeping us free.  I would hate to see the First Amendment put to a vote today in America; I’m not confident it would pass.  So I hope the governor’s new test contains some questions about how Americans came to have this particular freedom—and why so many were willing to fight and die for it. 

Let me put it another, very personal way:  My father did not lead his men into battle on Saipan, and watch a good many of them get killed (the emotional impact of which he never got over) so that he or his children would have to tip-toe around totalitarians and terrorists.  Or their appeasers.

Vive la France, our brothers and sisters in the fight for freedom, who gave us our Statue of Liberty.  May we always hold that torch high, and never forget what its light signifies.


If you’d like to know more about how the TV news media in America came to be what it is today, check out my novel Messages, which one critic called “a masterful expos√© of TV news.”

©2015 by Forrest Carr.  All rights reserved.


  1. As with so many freedoms, freedom of speech slippery little devil to fully grasp. In the purest sense, it gives us the freedom to lie to achieve our own ends, to revise history in support of our position, to make up "facts" as we need them. Ultimately, free speech, without accountability, leads to chaos.

    So is accountability the key? But can we all truly be accountable for our own actions? It wouldn't appear so. Is it the free speech of the masses that keeps politicians and business leaders in check? One might think that is the way it is supposed to work but reality, and the results of Buckley v. Valeo (1976) and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), have made it clear that those with more money have more free speech than the masses -- unless the masses actually speak up!

    When they do, however, they seem to apply more misinterpretation to constitutionally enshrined freedoms... we have freedom of religion AS LONG AS it is a (or the) religion we choose. That "as long as" is applied to most everything, it seems.

    Civics education can't just be a test at the end of high school. It must be started in the earliest years and taught throughout the education process. And it doesn't need to be yet another boring item in the curriculum. It can be, perhaps should be, inter-woven throughout the rest of the education process. But, given complete freedom of speech, what prevents text books being re-written, redacted, and even civics from being revised to suit the current political, religious, or secular climate of the country, state, or region?

    Thank our lucky stars (or God, if you wish) for those like you, Forrest, willing and able to speak out. Keep up the great work. We must all remember, of course, it is that same freedom the empowered Gov. Pence (IN) to seriously consider creating his own state-run news outlet. Hows that for freedom of speech leading to truth?

  2. Stephen, I so appreciate your kind comments and your support.
    Re: accountability, I agree with the thrust of your comments. I have a talk show on a commercial radio station where I get to do my part to hold the powerful accountable, bringing my 33 years of experience in journalism to bear. And then people get to hold me accountable, too, and they do. The free speech process ain't purty but it lurches along, and it's better than what many, many other countries have come up with.
    Best of luck in your endeavors (I just sent an admissions request to your Facebook group).