The Destruction of our Civic Ideals of Free Speech

One of the greatest fears that I have regarding the future of our country relates to First Amendment issues. It seems that our society has lost track over the value of the freedom of speech. This morning I saw this article and the attached video from the ConcernedStudent1950 protests and this pit in my stomach of the fear that we are losing ourselves as a nation grew 10-fold. As concerning as the entire video is, the worst part is at the end, when a professor of mass media who has joined with the protestors calls for “muscle” to remove a reporter off public space. That professor in particular ought to be the one teaching these protestors the value of freedom of the press, not how to censure and obfuscate the freedom of the press.

For reasons that are too numerous to find and identify, a belief has grown within our culture that speech is something we are to be protected FROM, instead of speech itself being something to protect. The one main exception “Don’t shout ‘FIRE!’ in a theater” has come to mean don’t say anything at any time that could hurt someone’s feelings. We now have organizations called the “Freedom FROM Religion Foundation” to help close avenues to free speech and expression. To me this feels like the proverbial “Death by a thousand knives” approach. Somehow as bits were carved out here and bits were carved out there, the lifeblood of our nation’s culture is draining out of us.

While most of the damage is being done on very small, individual scale, there do seem to be moments like today when deeper cuts are made that are far more damaging.

People of all ideologies and persuasions have on occasion done damage to the civic ideal of free speech, such as Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hearings in the 1950’s, or the development of byzantine rules regarding when, where, how, why, and who may pray in public which have been constantly under review and adjustment since the 1960s.

For me personally, I saw one of the deepest cuts of my lifetime happen with little fanfare, notice or recognition. In the fog-of-war that was taking place on September 11 & 12, 2012 over the attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Lybia we missed much of the bigger picture about what was taking place. We often focus on the death of Ambassador Stephens, the aftermath, the debates over whether misinformation was intentionally spread, etc. What we forget, is that in the early hours of this debate there was a heated debate between President Obama’s campaign and Mitt Romney’s campaign about the freedom of speech.

Prior to the attack in Lybia, US consulates around the Middle East were experiencing protests over a YouTube video that local news organizations claimed the US had either made or funded that actually featured the Prophet Mohamed in an unflattering light. The worst protest was taking place in Egypt. In the debate over the following days as to whether Ambassador Stephens was killed in a coordinated attack, or if as a result of a similar YouTube video protest, we lost track of this freedom of speech debate, and our freedom of speech ideals were damaged in the process.

As the US Embassy in Egypt was dealing with the early protestors, they released this statement:

“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”

This statement with its strong condemnation of the video, with no defense of the principle of freedom of speech was interpreted locally as a promise to arrest and put on trial the makers of the video. After all, within their cultural context, that is what you do to blasphemers.

Mitt Romney’s campaign, decided to point out the error of the embassy to exclude a defense of the freedom of speech, and prepared a statement to be released late in the evening, as to not detract from the 9/11 commemorations taking place that day. In particular, they stated their belief that the statement “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others,” was tantamount to an apology for the existence of the freedom of speech. The statement also included this line:

“It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”

Of course, due to the delayed issuing of the statement, this press release reached press offices shortly after the press started hearing rumors about the death of a US Ambassador. Needless to say, they misconstrued the intentions of Romney’s press release and condemned it for not expressing sympathy for the families of the Benghazi mission, and for trying to score political points off of an attack. (You can get these details from PolitiFact.)

In the following days, I engaged in a heated Facebook discussion with some acquaintances with whom I disagreed politically. I kept on trying to emphasize that there was an important discussion to have about the freedom of speech based on what happened in Cairo and that all the media reports about who said what and when, and whose political campaign had been more damaged was distracting us from the need to reinforce our civic belief in the freedom of speech. I wrote the following as an example of what I believe the Cairo embassy should have written:

“We have recently learned that a small group of Americans collaborated to produce an amateur film that depicts the life of the founder of Islam in a negative regard, as well as in disregard of Islamic beliefs that the prophet Mohammed not be depicted. We strongly condemn all attempts by media and other groups in this country that are stating that this film was made in corroboration with or by permission of the U.S. Government. The United States has as one of its founding principles the idea that speech should not be restricted by the government or by other powerful entities within a society. This does mean that on occasion people with use this freedom to belittle or demean the beliefs of others. However, we consider this a small price to pay to secure our personal liberties. This principle has allowed the millions of Muslims who live in the United States to express their religious beliefs, including occasional criticism of U.S. government policy or social injustices, without fear of government censorship or interference. While some have used this right to offend people here in Egypt, please understand that these opinions only apply to the individuals who expressed them and do not apply to all the citizens of our nation.”

While on occasion I look back on things I wrote in social media 2-5 years ago in embarrassment, I feel no embarrassment whatsoever for this statement. I still stand by this as the appropriate defense of the freedom of speech in that situation. It likely would not have prevented the storming of the embassy (although the embassy’s own statement failed in that regard as well), but at least we would have stood by our principles as a nation.

Too many of our nation’s youth have never had exposure to what the First Amendment really means, nor have they ever seen a robust defense of it. Too many of their mentors and teachers are those who believe that social justice trumps free speech. So as our youth have entered into universities we constantly find ourselves bombarded with:

In the second link in this list, there is a statement that students in these situations are engaging in the cognitive distortion of catastrophizing, and they are. However, catastrophizing is only one of many common cognitive distortions. The more worrisome one to me is emotional reasoning, which is to “[assume] that because we feel a certain way what we think must be true.” So if a student feels threatened by an idea, s/he can then claim that s/he was threatened. This is a dangerous precedent and can only be combated with a nationwide recommitment to the original ideas of benefits that freedom of speech pours out on our society. We need to especially point out how even people who abuse freedom of speech can bring about positive results, and that censuring them is far more damaging.

The Bill of Rights