Glenn Greenwald on free speech hypocrisy

As a follow up to Saturday’s post on blasphemy, I had hoped to say something about people who are calling for censorship of the recent anti-Islam video–and it’s not just Muslims. Glenn Greenwald at The Guardian wrote an excellent post yesterday, “Conservatives, Democrats, and the convenience of denouncing free speech.” He writes, in part:

It is exceedingly easy to invoke free speech values in defense of political views you like. It is exceedingly difficult to invoke them in defense of views you loathe. But the true test for determining the authenticity of one’s belief in free speech is whether one does the latter, not the former.

He criticizes both US political parties, starting with the Democrats:

On Thursday, the Obama White House called executives at Google, the parent company of YouTube, and “requested” that the company review whether the disgusting anti-Muslim film that has sparked such unrest should be removed on the ground that it violates YouTube’s terms of service.

In response, free speech groups such as the ACLU and EFF expressed serious concerns about the White House’s actions. While acknowledging that there was nothing legally compulsory about the White House’s request (indeed, Google announced the next day they would leave the video up), the civil liberties groups nonetheless noted – correctly – that “it does make us nervous when the government throws its weight behind any requests for censorship”, and that “by calling YouTube from the White House, they were sending a message no matter how much they say we don’t want them to take it down; when the White House calls and asks you to review it, it sends a message and has a certain chilling effect”.

Greenwald goes on to examine Republican hypocrisy on the matter. In short: they’re for free speech when it’s being used against Muslims, not so much when Muslims are speaking.

The whole column is worth reading, but here’s one of the takeaway ideas:

In sum, free speech is not intended to protect benign, uncontroversial, or inoffensive ideas. Those ideas do not need protection. It is intended to protect – to foster – exactly those political ideas that are most offensive, most provocative, most designed to inspire others to act in the name of its viewpoints. One could say that every significant political idea, on the right and the left, has that provocative potential. If speech can be constrained on the ground that it can inspire or provoke violence by others, then a wide range of political ideas, arguably the only ones that really matter, are easily subject to state suppression.

Make no mistake, there’s a lot of poisonous speech out there, a lot of people who are using language and images to try to start a fight. It’s tempting to use the law to try to make people play nice and have civil conversations.Certainly we can set our own rules on our own forums, such as blogs like this one. But that doesn’t mean hateful speech won’t flourish elsewhere.

But there are also a lot of really bad ideas out there that need to be discredited, and in my opinion Christianity and Islam are among them. (Note that I said Christianity and Islam, and not Christians and Muslims.) But that right there is enough to get some people fighting mad. Should we try to keep the peace by censoring speech to which people might react violently? And if that’s the standard, haven’t we created a perverse incentive by giving the greatest protection to ideas whose adherents respond to criticism with rage?

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