The right to free speech and right speech

Comments on September 11 attacks on US nationals in the Middle East have ranged from justified condemnation of these acts of violent terrorism to defending the free speech rights of the film maker who posted on YouTube a hate-filled, disrespectful trailer for an equally provocative film.

As details of the attack on our country’s embassy in Libya unfolded, it seems apparent that these attacks were well planned and orchestrated and possibly carried out by organized terrorist groups. There are many questions about the origins and motives of those who made and publicized the film on YouTube. The film, reported to be a poorly made, anti-Islamic video that denigrates the prophet Mohammed, was dubbed into Arabic and excerpts were released across the Middle East just weeks before September 11, 2012. The video may have been a convenient excuse to inflame the passions of devout Muslims who might have otherwise not joined in the fight.

We seem to have misunderstandings about what it means to have free speech. Our Constitution and its amendments do not protect all speech. You cannot make false and libelous or slanderous statements about someone else. You cannot make statements that would prompt others to cause physical harm to someone else. Yes, those who made this film probably are protected by the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. If there was evidence that the producers of the film were deliberately trying to incite violence, however, their rights would not (and should not) be protected by the Constitution.

Politicians have the right to criticize each other. Their opponents have the right to refute them and to level equal criticism. It would seem even half-truths and exaggerations are considered to be covered under the right to free speech in politics.

Just because we have the right to free speech, it does not mean that everything we say is justifiable. Yes, we do have the right to say things that are silly, hurtful, mean, hateful and prejudicial. We may even have the right to make disgusting and demeaning movies about others’ religion. That doesn’t however absolve us of being responsible for what we say and do. Free speech doesn’t mean that our words do not nor will not have consequences. Some of those consequences will reach far beyond our own lives and into the lives of others. We are responsible for what comes out of our mouths or from our keyboards. If I have the right to say what I think, you also have the right to voice an opposing view. We both have the responsibility to be sure we are being truthful, respectful and fair.

The internet with its many social networking options like Facebook and Twitter, video and blog publishing capability, and comment boards makes it even more important that we think before we exercise our free speech. Words are far more powerful when they can spread around the world at a speed of gigabytes per second.

I can post nasty comments about my boss on Facebook or YouTube. If my comments are not libelous or threatening, I have the right to do so. My boss, however, has the right to fire me or to discipline me. At the very least, the next staff meeting is going to be really uncomfortable. Others who disagree with me have the right to call me a jerk. Finding a new job might be difficult. Those are the consequences of my exercising my rights.

Where is the line between teasing and bullying? How many young people have committed suicide because of the cyber-bullying of their peers? Where is the line between an unpopular opinion and racial prejudice, hate and inciting violence? Just because free speech is a right, that doesn’t make all speech right.

If a hate filled, disrespectful and mean-spirited movie posted on YouTube incited even one person to join the attacks which resulted in Ambassador Christopher Steven’s and others’ deaths, the person(s) who posted it should be held responsible for their actions, not defended for the exercise and abuse of their right to free speech.

Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains