We have to remember that our First Amendment values are not universal; they emerged contingently from our own political history, a set of cobbled-together compromises among political and ideological factions responding to localized events. As often happens, what starts out as a grudging political settlement has become, when challenged from abroad, a dogmatic principle to be imposed universally. Suddenly, the disparagement of other people and their beliefs is not an unfortunate fact but a positive good. It contributes to the “marketplace of ideas,” as though we would seriously admit that Nazis or terrorist fanatics might turn out to be right after all. Salman Rushdie recently claimed that bad ideas, “like vampires … die in the sunlight” rather than persist in a glamorized underground existence. But bad ideas never die: They are zombies, not vampires. Bad ideas like fascism, Communism, and white supremacy have roamed the countryside of many an open society.
So symbolic attachment to uneasy, historically contingent compromises, and a half-century of judicial decisions addressing domestic political dissent and countercultural pressures, prevent the U.S. government from restricting the distribution of a video that causes violence abroad and damages America’s reputation. And this is a video that, by the admission of all sides, has no value whatsoever.
Americans have not always been so paralyzed by constitutional symbolism. During the Cold War, the U.S. foreign policy establishment urged civil rights reform in order to counter Soviet propagandists’ gleeful reports that Americans fire-hosed black protesters and state police arrested African diplomats who violated Jim Crow laws. Rather than tell the rest of the world to respect states’ rights—an ideal as sacred in its day as free speech is now—the national government assured foreigners that it sought to correct a serious but deeply entrenched problem. It is useful if discomfiting to consider that many people around the world may see America’s official indifference to Muslim (or any religious) sensibilities as similar to its indifference to racial discrimination before the civil rights era.
The final irony is that while the White House did no more than timidly plead with Google to check if the anti-Muslim video violates its policies (appeasement! shout the critics), Google itself approached the controversy in the spirit of prudence. The company declined to remove the video from YouTube because the video did not attack a group (Muslims) but only attacked a religion (Islam). Yet it also cut off access to the video in countries such as Libya and Egypt where it caused violence or violated domestic law. This may have been a sensible middle ground, or perhaps Google should have done more. What is peculiar is that while reasonable people can disagree about whether a government should be able to curtail speech in order to safeguard its relations with foreign countries, the Google compromise is not one that the U.S. government could have directed. That’s because the First Amendment protects verbal attacks on groups as well as speech that causes violence (except direct incitement: the old cry of “Fire!” in a crowded theater). And so combining the liberal view that government should not interfere with political discourse, and the conservative view that government should not interfere with commerce, we end up with the bizarre principle that U.S. foreign policy interests cannot justify any restrictions on speech whatsoever. Instead, only the profit-maximizing interests of a private American corporation can. Try explaining that to the protesters in Cairo or Islamabad.
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