Free speech is tricky. It can offend or uplift, terrify or exhilarate, incite or pacify. Along with the other First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and freedom of association, we commonly understand our right to express ourselves freely to be absolute. But this is far from reality. Even as we go about our quotidian activities, the vast majority of us constantly apply a filter. We refrain from saying exactly what we please because we think it might unnecessarily offend the person we’re talking to or just because we’re concerned about subscribing to the status quo and not looking like a fool. Exercising such restraint is a central characteristic of a well-adjusted adult, an individual who has fully internalized the prescribed conduct of society. This auto-policing of speech allows us to interact in a “civilized” manner with our peers and thereby work toward achieving the quintessential capitalist goal of perpetual development and improvement.
If you’ve watched the news at all over the course of the past two weeks, you probably heard about the assassination of Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi by militants who were infuriated by the anti-Islam film made by an American-Israeli filmmaker. The morning of the assassination, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, faced with increasingly violent protesters incensed by the film’s ridicule of the prophet Mohammed, issued a statement saying that it “condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims—as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.” In response to the allegations by Twitter followers of not standing up for the core American values of freedom of speech, the embassy tweeted, “Freedom of speech is a universal human right, but that will not stop us from condemning misguided, uninformed actions.” After the chairman of Maryland Young Republicans accused the embassy via Twitter of apologizing to the Egyptian invaders, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo retorted by tweeting, “Sorry, but neither breaches of our compound or [sic] angry messages will dissuade us from defending freedom of speech AND criticizing bigotry.” The embassy here apparently proposed that freedom of speech can coexist with a project of condemning bigotry, but the root of the controversy between the embassy and those who accused it of “apolog[izing] for our values” was contradictory understandings of the absoluteness of the First Amendment right to free expression.
Mitt Romney and his supporters, in arguing that the embassy’s condemnation of the anti-Muslim film constituted a denial of the First Amendment right to free speech, forget that free speech is only absolute if you’re willing and able to suffer the consequences. Walking through security at the airport, it is highly advisable that you refrain from making jokes about all the explosives you decided to add to your carry-on at the last minute. Unless you’re willing and able to submit to a cavity search (and risk the possibility of prompting TSA officials to clear the security checkpoint and making all the other passengers furious), you refrain from saying the word “bomb” in the vicinity of a TSA officer.
The death of Ambassador Stevens and the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo are admittedly not closely analogous to the reaction of a TSA officer to the “B” word, but they are predictable repercussions of a video that insults the idol many Muslims would identify as the bedrock of Islamic civilization. Particularly in the post-Arab Spring world, where we are well aware of the powerful and viral revolutionary impetus of social media, a single bigoted film can wreak unimaginable and unnecessary havoc. It is true that absolute freedom of speech would find no problem with a film that depicts Mohammed as a child molester who writes the Quran to justify his sexual desires. But the vast majority of us are peace-loving individuals who understand that living in a democratic, free and capitalist society comes with certain responsibilities, including the obligation to police our speech to the extent necessary to preserve and build on the status quo.
Certainly, I would by no means argue we should abandon all hope of change in the interest of coexisting in civilized society. There are definitely moments and ways to loosen the restraints on free speech, to voice our opinions on how society can improve. But we have to be realistic. Free speech is tricky, and we have to remember that we’re not the only ones with strong convictions. If we present our criticisms in a respectful way, there is a far greater possibility that those who disagree will respond in kind. If, however, we decide to defame a central tenet of a society, then we shouldn’t be surprised when we inflame our critics. Exercising our First Amendment rights is a balancing act, and we must condemn actions that unnecessarily compromise one at the expense of the other. As the U.S. Embassy in Cairo argued, we need to defend freedom of speech and criticize bigotry.
Joline Doedens is a first-year law student. Her column runs every other Monday. You can follow Joline on Twitter @jydoedens.