A new edition of Mein Kampf, the autobiography of Hitler that is filled with rants against Jews and praise for the supremacy of the Aryan race, will be back in European bookstores in 2016. The state of Bavaria had blocked any printing of this hateful tract since 1945.
North Korea threatened a 9/11 style attack if Sony Pictures released the film The Interview, which satirized that country's closed society and leader.
Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger found guilty of insulting Islam, is serving a 10 year prison sentence and is to be flogged 1,000 times. In January, he received the first 50 lashes before hundreds of spectators in a public square in Jeddah.
In late January, Facebook agreed to block images of the prophet Muhammad in Turkey, and this past December it caved to Russian regulators and began censoring the Facebook page of Russia's leading Putin critic, Alexei Navalny.
Other cultures and countries have an approach to free speech that differs radically from our own. We can't easily influence what happens elsewhere in the world, and we should thank our lucky 50 stars that the framers of the Bill of Rights put such a premium on free speech by ensconcing it in the First Amendment. But what core purpose does free speech serve in our free society? Why should we respect what people express if their opinions conflict with conventional wisdom, if they are erroneous, or if they are nothing but crude satire? In other words, what's the practical benefit of allowing a Huffington Post blogger, Ann Coulter and Jon Stewart have their unbridled say?
One of the best rationales for free speech wasn't formulated in the late 18th century when our governing principles were shaped. Instead, we find it in the 1859 writings of a British libertarian, John Stuart Mill. His essay, On Liberty, states, "If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind." Why did Mill believe this to be true? He provides four succinct answers.
First, if we silence an opinion, for all we know we may be silencing the truth. Remember the mistake the Catholic Church made in denouncing Galileo's heliocentric theory?
Second, even a wrong opinion may contain a tiny grain of truth that will lead us to the full truth. Man-made climate change is a reality, but perhaps doubters are right about the unassailable accuracy of computer modelling
Third, even if popular opinion represents the truth with a capital "T," it shouldn't be locked away in a tabernacle. All truth needs to be constantly tested and defended. The cherished right to vote has recently come under attack from conservative governors and legislators who have mandated picture IDs for voters, curtailed early voting and restricted registration drives. These politically motivated threats to universal suffrage need to be challenged in the courts to preserve a right to vote that is unencumbered by legal legerdemain.
Fourth, unless a commonly held opinion is challenged, it becomes weakened and loses its importance. We believe that we are protected by the Fourth Amendment, guaranteeing "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures …" However, we've learned from the leaked NSA files provided by Edward Snowden that Verizon provided millions of our phone records to the agency for screening. Perhaps we have nothing to hide, but might this be considered an unreasonable search and seizure? Do the unrestrained powers of the Patriot Act violate our basic right to privacy? Congress has been ineffectual in debating this, though any discussion can only serve to test and strengthen our Fourth Amendment rights. The topic should also be red meat for the Constitution-defending tea party, and I am puzzled by their seeming disinterest in this basic rights violation.
Of course there are limits to free speech. We don't have the right to shout "fire" in a crowded theatre or produce or distribute obscene materials. And though we may have the right to publish puerile and insulting cartoons of Mohammad, that doesn't mean we should. Respect and decency ought to be part of our deliberations. Also, it makes little sense to taunt a rabid dog with a sharp stick.
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Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears Fridays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.