Free Speech

This current uproar over the Danish cartoons has gotten me to think about what is free speech. It certainly doesn’t mean you can say anything you want. Clearly, laws against slander and libel do not violate the Constitution. Hate speech also does not receive First Amendment protection. The 1942 Supreme Court decision Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire decided that “fighting words”, which incite an immediate fighting response “are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to the truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.”

If free speech doesn’t mean you can say anything you want with impunity then what is it exactly. My personal view is that free speech is not a free pass to express any thought but a safeguard to protect those that lack power to criticize those in power. So a governement scientist should be able to complain that science is being distorted for political ends without the fear of losing his job or a newspaper should be able to claim that a certain politician is corrupt without the fear of being shutdown.

Should European newspapers be allowed to print cartoons that are inflammatory towards Muslims? Having not seen the cartoons, my assumption is that the intention was to criticize certain elements of the Muslim world for using religion to incite violence. However, given that images of the Prophet Mohammed are deemed sacrilegious, I think this could have been done in an editorial essay. The Muslim community is clearly marginalized in European society so this is not the same as say burning the US flag. Also, given that there are laws against denying the Holocaust in many European countries, I think banning images considered sacrilegious to Muslims would not be inconsistent. I am a proponent of free speech but I do believe there can be limits.

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