Free Speech Weirdness from Overseas

Today, Philip Bump at Grist passed along this interesting story about a shock jock in Australia who, after spewing some false nonsense about climate change on the air, "has been ordered to undergo 'factual accuracy' training, and to use fact-checkers." Obviously, the government has no such powers here in America, but it's a good reminder that America's particular version of free speech wasn't handed down from above, or even by the Founders. The words in the First Amendment ("Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press") are very general; the contours and details of that freedom have been given shape over the decades by a succession of Supreme Court cases. James Madison didn't have an opinion about whether it was OK for Rush Limbaugh to go on the air and call Sandra Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute," so we had to figure out later how to handle that, and we chose, for some good reasons, to let it slide (legally speaking).

In other countries where people are just as committed to freedom as we are, they've come to slightly different conclusions about where the limits of those freedoms are. It's not that they don't value free expression, it's just that competing values like truth and civility sometimes get weighed more heavily. We believe there are limits to freedom of speech no less than the Australians do; we just put those limits farther out. There are plenty of speech acts you can be sued or even prosecuted for, from intentionally libeling someone to inciting violence to revealing state secrets to conspiring to commit a crime.

I wouldn't be comfortable with our government making decisions like the one the Australian government did, but we shouldn't forget that our expansive interpretation of free speech comes with a cost. Because we don't want the government policing the truth, we have to put up with a lot of lies; because we don't think you have a right not to be offended, we have to put up with lots of offensive speech. There are countries where the consensus belief is that personal dignity is a value that outweighs freedom of speech, so you can be punished for offending someone. This is at the heart of why many people in the Muslim world can't quite understand why our society would tolerate something like that anti-Muslim film, and why we can't quite understand why they got so worked up over it, since it was just some jackass making a stupid video. Here in America, we offer wide latitude to jackassery.

There are lots of Americans who only value free speech so long as their own feelings aren't being hurt and they don't have to hear any speech they don't like. But democracy is often painful and unpleasant. For instance, 18 days from now, half the country is going to be very, very disappointed with the results of the election. I have a feeling that when it happens, particularly if Barack Obama wins, we're going to see how thin the commitment to democracy is on the part of some people.

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