Free to offend
by: Peter McClelland
The attacks on America’s consulate in Libya on September 11, 2012, have sparked an outcry of justified backlash against the intentional slander of Islam. There was even a demonstration here at UNC to show a desire for peace. Now, the initial story (that the attack was a random, spontaneous riot spurred by outrage over Nakoula Bassely Nakoula’s video, The Innocence of Muslims) is being called into question as evidence grows that this attack may have been a planned event. However, the debate over the limits of free speech had already began, almost immediately after the initial reports and will likely be ongoing.
What’s more, even before the attacks in September, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez appeared before the Constitution Subcommittee and refused to answer definitively if the Obama administration’s Justice Department would, “entertain or advance a proposal that criminalizes speech against any religion”. Arizona Congressman Trent Franks questioned him repeatedly on the issue, and each time the Assistant Attorney General Perez dodged and refused to give a concrete answer.
Freedom of speech is one of the most prized, guarded, and enshrined freedoms guaranteed by the American Constitution, but, in the context of being threatened by Islamic extremism, the following question has been posed by some on the Left: Should some speech be banned if it offends others? USA Today had a column from a University of Pennsylvania professor, Anthea Butler, two days after the attack, that discussed how Nakoula (though she used his pseudonym “Sam Bacile”) should be in jail for publishing his video. Her reasoning was that “Bacile’s film is not about expressing a personal opinion about Islam. It denigrates the religion by depicting the faith’s founder in several ludicrous and historically inaccurate scenes to incite and inflame viewers”. In short, by her argument, people should be arrested for intentionally offending a religious group.
This is absolute madness. Between Assistant Attorney General Perez and the Ivy League tenured professor, we see the possibility of bringing European style “free-to-not-offend-anyone-ever” speech to this country. The obvious and immediate question is the following, of course: who would get to draw the line on what’s considered offensive?
It offends me that people say I can’t say what I want. Should that be banned? It offends me when people suggest spending more to solve the problems caused by spending too much money. Should that be banned? It offends me when people who are supposed to be educated misuse homophones. Should we put self-described grammar-Nazis to round up people that use “your” instead of “you’re”? After all, one can make the case that seeing a post-doctorate teacher write, “your supposed to finish the assignment before Monday” offends English majors and good writers. Why not punish such behavior?
Those examples are, needless to say, intentionally absurd; they illustrate, however, just how insane and inane it is to censor speech that offends people. Former Green Jobs Czar Van Jones said in April 2012 that libertarians were “cheap patriots” and that, “they hate the people, the brown folks, the gays, [and] the lesbians”. That offends me deeply, but I would not be caught dead arguing earnestly that he did not have a right to speak such lies.
This brings us to the core of why it is that it is so absolutely absurd to claim that a person should be thrown in prison for offending someone. It is because it is quite far from the proper role of government to protect our sensibilities.
In a truly free society, the role of government is only four-fold. It must protect the individual’s right to life, the individual’s liberties, the individual’s pursuit of happiness, and finally to protect the individual’s right to his or her own property.
Nowhere in there is a right to live free of offense. Being offended does not hurt your life. It does not take way your liberties. It does not prohibit an individual’s true pursuit of happiness. And it does not damage and individual’s property. Ergo, it is not the place of government to prevent such speech.
At the root of the issue surrounding the video is the fact that there was violence that allegedly was tied to this act of speech. If there had been no outbreaks of violence, there certainly would not have been anyone pushing to punish people for offending others (at least not right at this time). But that fact takes us to a fundamental contradiction in the logic of banning offensive speech: they want to punish the people who did not violate the rights listed above.
Now, why would Progressives want to do that? Well, if you can ban the offensive, and you can paint your opponent’s message as offensive (and we all can likely call to mind times when conservatives and libertarians have been called racists, sexists, homophobes, and/or bigots by people like Van Jones), then you have effectively tied the opposition’s hands. Therefore, not only is it not the proper role of government to silence speech simply because it is offensive, but it also could do unmitigated harm to our political system for it to do so.
And to close, a word from Australian-born comedian Steve Hughes: “When did sticks and stones may break my bones stop being relevant?… No one ever said, ‘I went to the comedy show, and the comedian said something about the Lord. And I was offended, and in the morning, I had leprosy.’”