Caution: political and philosophical comments below. You may be offended.
The United States is very unusual in how we regulate the spoken and written word at the federal and state levels. That is, we don’t, with a very few and very specific exceptions. You cannot whip up a mob and sic them on someone (incitement to riot). You cannot cause panic for the fun of watching the chaos (“falsely shouting ‘Fire’ in a crowded theater”). You are not permitted to make explicit death-threats against an individual while acting in such a way as to make the other person and the police suspect that you are ready, willing, and able to carry out your threats. You are not supposed to make threats against the President of the United States. Otherwise go for it, but be aware that you might get a fist in the nose for your efforts.
At least, that’s how it used to be. Change has crept into the culture of the U.S., so that today hurting someone’s feelings is grounds for being expelled from college and using epithets can get a few years added to an assault sentence. And pundits and “leaders” bemoan other people’s exercise of the right to speak their mind, especially the right to say things no one wants to hear (or do not want other people to hear). The question, probably unaskable prior to WWI, has arisen: should the government impose limits on free speech? The self-proclaimed right-thinkers say yes. I say no.
The silliest argument against letting people peacefully speak their minds is “You might offend someone/hurt their feelings.” In that case there is a whole lot of prohibited political and economic speech being uttered, from all sides. Politicians and pundits regularly hurt my feelings because of inconsistent logic, deliberate ignorance of ground-level economics, and an excess of intellectual fairy dust. I also get offended when: someone tells me that since I follow a religion, I’m stupid; that since I’m a woman who gets warm fuzzies for men I must be an oppressor and victim (at the same time); and that I have no right to complain when someone desecrates symbols of my religion in the name of “art,” but that for me to do likewise is tantamount to a crime.
The point of free speech is that all speech that is not an immediate incitement to mayhem is free. You can wave a sign saying “G-d hates Gays” and I can wave a sign saying “Gay-haters go to h-ll” and as long as we don’t block the public right-of-way or engage in fisticuffs, why not? One party insults Catholics and calls it “art” while another group insults Salafist and Wahabi Moslems and calls it “an art contest” and that should be that. Especially if the latter group are willing to pay the higher insurance premiums and to hire security in anticipation of the offended party responding with deadly force.
This past weekend a group of people held a “Draw Mohammed” event across the street from a mosque in Arizona. The two jihadi-wanna-be’s who attacked the earlier Draw Mohammed contest had attended that mosque, and the anti-jihadies wanted to make a point. The protesters showed up with pens, paper, and firearms. Counter-protesters arrived, Mohammed was drawn, words were exchanged, but shots and blows were not, and everyone went home. (Except the man who organized it, because he and his family are now in hiding due to death threats.)
I don’t care for the Democrat Underground website, or Jezebel, FireDogLake, but I don’t want them banned. Some days I wonder what the folks at Slate and Salon are drinking and if they buy it by the case from the New York Times, but they have every right to call for an end to fossil fuel use in the Northern Hemisphere or for a total ban on smoking tobacco. Jut like Alex Jones and World Net Daily and American Thinker have a right to demand that the governors of Texas and New Mexico take steps to watch the military during the upcoming “Jade Helm” exercises. And I have a right to walk back and forth on the sidewalk outside certain medical clinics with a sign saying “There are other options.”
“But what about speech that you know is going to inflame someone because he belongs to a group so sensitive to slights and offenses that you could get someone hurt by even speaking harshly of his religion’s founder? You’ll alienate all his fellow believers and that’s too dangerous.” Poppycock. What you are saying is that certain belief systems don’t have to grow up and learn to deal with offenses in what the Western World considers (or used to consider) an adult manner. The US is not Saudi Arabia or Pakistan (outside of a few enclaves).
May 22 was Draw Mohammed Day. So I drew a stick figure with a keffiyeh and a beard and called it Mohammed. I greviously insulted a whole bunch of people who never knew what I did, apparently. And for those who do draw rude cartoons of political and religious leaders? That’s protected. Before someone starts to lecture me about honor culture and why certain groups of Moslems feel the burning need to “uphold the honor of the Prophet” by killing anyone who makes fun of or questions that individual, I’ve heard it all before. Outside of certain subcultures, the US dropped honor culture years ago. The government has no place saying “You can’t draw Mohammed because it will hurt someone’s feelings.” The government also has no right to say “You can’t submerge a crucifix in a jar of urine and call it art.” (The government shouldn’t provide grant money for either exercise, in my opinion, but that’s a different topic for a different day.)
But words and actions do have consequences. If I walk up to a bunch of bikers, start kicking gravel at one of their rides and talk about “Stupid wusses and pussies who think they’re so tough,” I’d better be ready to take my licks. Ditto saying “all gays are going to h-ll” in the Castro District in San Francisco. Free speech has the responsibility of taking the consequences of those words. Unpopular speech is just that – unpopular. People can and will take offense, even when someone is speaking an unhappy truth (like “the government doesn’t grow dollars on trees. They come from taxes, which come from your pocket.”) Which is all the more reason for it to be protected. I do not like it when the KKK comes to town to stand around and do their thing. But they have a right to do so and I’ll exercise my right to avoid them. Ditto the New Black Panthers or a Mexican nationalist group calling for the return of Aztlan.
So long as it is not calling for immediate bodily harm, free speech should be free. The government can stay out of it, in the ‘Net, in print, on the street. And those who speak freely should be prepared to take the consequences of their words. Because there is no right to freedom from offense.