In a rare alignment of the political stars, next month the world’s two largest economies both face changes in leadership. On November 6, the U.S. will hold presidential and congressional elections, and on November 8, the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party will begin a once-a-decade passing of the reigns of power in the world’s most populous country. Americans are used to a full-throated debate over our political institutions: From op-eds that decry the influence of money in politics to civics lessons on the electoral college, political discussion is nearly impossible to avoid.
Last Friday, the Obama campaign released an ad in several swing states attacking Mitt Romney for his stance on abortion. “It’s a scary time to be a women—Mitt Romney is just so out of touch,” says a woman named Jenni. A narrator explains that Mitt Romney opposes requiring insurance coverage for contraceptives, supports overturning Roe v. Wade, and once backed a bill that would outlaw all abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. The ad concludes: “We need to attack our problems, not a woman’s choice.”
Discussions of free speech in the United States often call upon the adage—misattributed to Voltaire—that “while I disagree with what you have to say, I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (The quote in fact comes from Evelyn Hall, who wrote a biography of the French philosopher.) It’s a succinct summary of a the cherished American idea that speech should not be abridged because we find its content objectionable.
But according to New York University Law Professor Jeremy Waldron, it’s severely flawed.
On January 18, the Internet went on strike. Tens of thousands of Web sites—including Google, Wikipedia, and Wordpress—went offline or blacked out their interfaces to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). Many feared the breadth of the proposed anti-piracy laws—which could force entire domains to shut down because of the actions of a small number of users—would be used to censor online content and chill innovation. Protestors sent millions of e-mails and placed calls. Organizers of the strike estimate that nearly one billion people were exposed to their message. PIPA and SOPA were tabled. It was, by all measures, an overwhelming success.