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Why Americans Are Giant Hypocrites About Free Speech

January 18, 2015 in Blogs

By Andrew O’Hehir, Salon

Yeah, the French look like merde arresting a comedian for a Facebook post. But we're free-speech hypocrites too.

Even under the relatively broad construction of freedom of speech we’re accustomed to in the United States, almost everyone up to and including Glenn Greenwald and the ACLU would agree that my right to say what I want has both legal and practical limits. I’m not allowed to make direct threats against the life of the president or other government officials, and I’m not allowed, as the conventional phrase puts it, to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. That sounds reasonable enough. But wait – as we have discovered this week, and as we discover over and over again, when it comes to restricting speech, the devil is in the details. What constitutes an unacceptable threat against the leadership class, and who is covered by this restriction? Does the owner of the theater (metaphorically speaking) get to determine whether or not my words have caused a panic? What if the theater is really on fire?

In the eyes of many American civil libertarians and journalists, France and other Western European nations committed a dangerous and self-destructive blunder this week with their widespread crackdown on speech perceived as condoning or supporting Islamic terrorism. Just days earlier, Paris had captured the world’s attention with a massive rally in response to the murderous attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a suburban supermarket. French citizens of many backgrounds, races and faiths had taken to the streets by the hundreds of thousands to demonstrate that the republican ideal, however tarnished and challenged, had not perished.

Now the French cops are rounding people up because of stuff they said, including a drunk driver who tried to talk tough after causing an accident and a notorious comedian who made a nasty joke on Facebook. To say this is ironic feels inadequate. To describe it as going from the sublime to the ridiculous comes closer, but fails to reveal the contradictory kinship between these events. As Greenwald noted earlier this week, it’s impossible to imagine Western media celebrities signing on to …read more


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