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Blaming Free Speech

by Kent M. Pitman (Monday, May 23, 2005)

Pointing fingers at Newsweek as if its story about the desecration of the Koran was the "cause" of people's deaths seems wrong.

First of all, this was published in America in English. It seems to me unlikely that the people who did the killing were readers of Newsweek. In fact, if I had my guess, I'd say that many of the people who are rounded up to do terrorism world-wide are those who are deprived of regular information about how the world works. If not outright illiterate, I'd expect them not to be regular readers of magazines that cover international politics. I don't think well-informed citizens of any country are as likely to rush into the streets and kill people as are people who have their head in the sand and take their direction from leaders who purport to understand the world better than they do.

So what seems much more likely is that there were people out there who see it as their business to stir up trouble, and they happened to use this as an excuse. But had Newsweek not run this story, I don't think those people would have said "ok, no problem. nothing to be upset about." It seems to me that such people are predisposed to be rallying their troops these days, regardless of what's going on. For that reason, blaming Newsweek seems wrong even just on those grounds alone.

This reminds me of the flap over Jane Fonda and the things she said that were repeated to people in POW camps. I'm sure the people in the POW camps didn't appreciate what was repeated to them, but at the same time, the game of feeding prisoners propaganda does not stop just because one person stops speaking. People who are determined to twist what is being said outside in order to cause misery for those in captivity are simply going to do that regardless of what is said.

In sum, it is just too great a burden on a free society to ask everyone to control their speech to such a degree that no statement by any person can be taken out of context in a way that is possible to exploit by those who are determined to do so.

So it's fine if Jane Fonda wants to apologize because she feels bad that some people felt pain. And it's fine if Newsweek wants to tighten up its editorial standards. But I think it's wrong for we as a public to say that the mere fact that someone used their words for ill means they did something wrong by speaking those words.

The cost of a free society is that sometimes words will be confused, misunderstood, misconstrued, etc. As the Supreme Court has noted, the proper answer to perceived "bad speech" is just "more speech". The public will sort it out. But if we instead start tightening controls on what people can say just because some ill effect comes, we'll soon have no free society left to defend.

Copyright © 2009 by Kent M Pitman. All Rights Reserved.

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