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Too Much of that First Amendment Thing?

Isn’t it about time for the U.S. wake up and fall in line with the rest of world when it comes to placing restrictions on certain kinds of speech? Why, in a world so volatile and fraught with religious and ethnic tension, does the U.S. stand alone in providing a safe harbor for speech that oozes with hate, incitement and contempt?

In the global race to place restrictions hate speech the U.S. runs dead last, owing to its dogged allegiance to the principle of free expression. Is it possible, in today’s post-9/11 world, that dedication to the ideology of free speech is still prudent?

You bet it is. But not everyone agrees.

A New York Times article by Adam Liptak probes the sensitive issue of the U.S. free-speech stance vis-à-vis the rest of the world. Liptak writes:

“Some prominent legal scholars say the United States should reconsider its position on hate speech.

“‘It is not clear to me that the Europeans are mistaken,’ Jeremy Waldron, a legal philosopher, wrote in The New York Review of Books last month, ‘when they say that a liberal democracy must take affirmative responsibility for protecting the atmosphere of mutual respect against certain forms of vicious attack.'”

Waldron wrote those words, Liptak notes, while reviewing “Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment” by Anthony Lewis, a former New York Times columnist.

Liptak continues:

“But even Mr. Lewis, a liberal, wrote in his book that he was inclined to relax some of the most stringent First Amendment protections ‘in an age when words have inspired acts of mass murder and terrorism.’ In particular, he called for a re-examination of the Supreme Court’s insistence that there is only one justification for making incitement a criminal offense: the likelihood of imminent violence.'”

Such debate over the merits of free expression is a good thing, possibly even a needed thing. During ugly, troubling times, a dedication to free speech is crucial. The fight to give all manner of speech an equal platform is not a pleasant one; sometimes such a fight is barely palatable. But that fight, no matter how distasteful, must be fought, and continue to be fought whenever necessary.

Without free expression, repression creates a vacuum of muted voices and defeated ideas. Fear replaces freedom; a message that might move a nation to resist a repressive regime evaporates, becoming less than a historical footnote.

Increasingly, the battle for free expression is taking place on the Internet.

The Internet is the 21st Century version of the Commons; however, it’s a Commons that more resembles a minefield than a marketplace of ideas. Authoritarian countries and those with weak rule of law and poor human rights records view the Internet as both a blessing and a curse. The Internet revives moribund economies; but it also infuses repressed people with hope and personal freedoms. Many countries are aggressively working to remake the Internet into a de facto arm of the government, using it to filter content, censor blogs, conduct surveillance cyber-dissidents, and build monitoring capabilities.

The next administration has the opportunity to champion the principles of free expression on the Internet in global forums, and to promote legal and policy frameworks rooted in the principles of openness and human rights. If that opportunity is squandered, the U.S. risks having its voice merely echo from the wings of the global stage.