Offensive Speech and the Danger of Granting the Heckler's Veto

But they sent a terrible message.

To American communications firms, they sent the message that airing certain kinds of speech is going to attract the attention of federal officials, who'd rather they didn't. The message to citizens: Certain kinds of political speech, while protected by the First Amendment, will trigger federal investigations into whether there's any legal reason you can be arrested. And the message to illiberal Muslims: Speech offensive to you is protected by the First Amendment, but the United States government can totally lean on private companies to make them harder to access on the Internet, and investigate the speaker to see if he's broken any laws, so next time you're upset best to start demanding that those actions be taken. Those are foolish messages to send.

Along the same lines, Eugene Volokh explains why moderating America's relatively absolutist view of the First Amendment to avoid future explosions of violence would almost surely have the opposite effect (emphasis in original):

Say that the murders in Libya lead us to pass a law banning some kinds of speech that Muslims find offensive or blasphemous, or reinterpreting our First Amendment rules to make it possible to punish such speech under some existing law. What then will extremist Muslims see? They killed several Americans (maybe itself a plus from their view). In exchange, they've gotten America to submit to their will. And on top of that, they've gotten back at blasphemers, and deter future blasphemy. A triple victory. Would this (a) satisfy them that now America is trying to prevent blasphemy, so there's no reason to kill over the next offensive incident, or (b) make them want more such victories? My money would be on (b).

And this is especially so since there'll be plenty of other excuses for such killings in the future. It's not like Muslim extremists have a clearly defined, unvarying, and limited range of speech they are willing to kill over (e.g., desecrating Korans and nothing but). Past history has already proved that; consider the bombings and murders triggered by the publication of the Satanic Verses.... "Last time this happened, and our men killed four Americans, the Americans saw the light and decided to punish the blasphemers. They agreed that blasphemy must be suppressed -- and yet they now shamelessly refuse to act on their promises!" (I doubt that the mob will have much of a sense of the nuances of American legal doctrine, so it's a safe bet that they won't know that the hypothetical new law doesn't extend to "serious literature" or "genuine debate" or religious proselytizing; plus they might not view the Satanic Verses and the like as "serious literature" or "genuine debate.") "Maybe the Americans forgotten what happened last time -- but we haven't. Let's give them a taste of the same medicine that worked so well back then."

Now the people I'm describing of course won't include all Muslims, or most Muslims. But events over the past decades have shown that there are enough extremist Muslims (whatever their fraction of the Muslim population might be) who are willing to riot and murder in reaction to what they see as blasphemy. Obviously this is a large enough and dangerous enough subset of Muslims that some people are willing to try to forcibly suppress American speech in order to appease them. Will our accommodating these Muslim extremists diminish that impulse, or fuel it?

His whole post is worth reading.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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