Speech, Films and Broccoli
By Roy Gutterman, October 3, 2012
Here in the United States, we cherish the right to dissent, to criticize our leaders, even to insult them. The First Amendment protects this and much more. The recent explosion of anti-American vitriol, culminating in riots all over the world, shows not only how different our democratic values are from other societies, but how we tolerate abuses.
Although some have attributed the riots to an offensive film it is doubtful the film was the sole motivating factor. Even if it was, the worldwide reaction shows an even starker contrast between the United States and the rest of the world.
President Obama, speaking at the United Nations, painted a clear picture of the American perspective on the role of speech in a democracy. At the world’s showcase, the president reiterated why the government has not sought to ban the film or prosecute its creators, why we can have a peaceful, intellectual discussion about content that may be offensive to many. In short, the president explained to the world that American law and tradition fosters freedom of religion and speech. “Our constitution protects the right to practice free speech,” he said. “Here in the Untied States, countless publications provoke offense.”
The president’s most poignant point was also his most personal: “As president of our country, and commander-in-chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so.”
This was a lesson to the world.
Our rights – freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to peaceably assemble and petition government for grievances – are ingrained in every aspect of American life, from education to entertainment to elections. This is what we call freedom.
And freedom, it turns out, is one of our exports.
American consumer goods, pop culture, food, entertainment and sports are easily exported and sought after around the globe. And so is freedom—or, at least, the concept of freedom. People say they want it, but often with little regard for what freedom really means. It takes more than the toppling of a military strongman to inject a population with freedom, especially freedom as we define it with First Amendment values. Our government’s handling of an inflammatory film on the world stage has been a “teachable moment” for those who might emulate the free society we hold dear.
It is impossible to have free speech in a society without some growing pains, though. The United States has struggled with this over the years. The Alien and Sedition Acts and the Espionage Acts in the 1700s aimed at suppressing certain political factions. Later, we witnessed the red scare, 1960s anti-war protests, post-9/11 hysteria and the Occupy Wall Street movement. These unpopular, anti-establishment topics, just to name a few, made and make people bristle.
The question, however, is how the democracy manages and deals with these types of speech. How society deals with and confronts unpopular viewpoints is the true lesson we have to export. Many people in the United States have probably viewed the offensive film at issue here, just like many have regularly viewed other offensive content.
Instead of riots, though, we had news coverage, editorials and commentary discussing it and criticizing it and even comedians mocking the man credited with creating it. In short, our society had another talk and debate.
In an early free speech case before the Supreme Court, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes acknowledged that persecution of other people’s opinions made sense. Holmes was writing a dissenting opinion, defending the free speech rights of a group of socialists protesting American involvement in World War I.
Holmes’s dissent in Abrams v. United States (1919) spoke to how society handles controversial topics and how “the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas – that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market …”
The free speech “experiment,” as Holmes projected, lives on in the American tradition. It might not be as easily consumed as a McDonalds Happy Meal; instead, the American export of free speech may be a bit more like broccoli. It may not be as enticing as other foods, it may be a bit hard to swallow and give us a minor stomach ache, but it is very nutritious – something the body or democracy cannot thrive without.
Roy S. Gutterman is an associate professor of communications law and journalism and director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.