Leonard Pitts Jr.: The price of freedom

BY LEONARD PITTS JR. Published: September 21, 2012
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They are, perhaps, the most dangerous words ever written:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

That, for those who don't know, is the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

What makes those words dangerous is that they guarantee a freedom that, in the wrong hands (or even the right hands) can cause upset and outrage, even topple regimes. America confers that kind of power — freedom of expression, unfettered by government — equally to the conscientious and the flighty, the modest and the mighty, the noble and the most vile.

We've been arguing about it ever since, from the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which restricted criticism of the government, to Snyder v. Phelps in 2011, a Supreme Court ruling upholding the right of a hateful Kansas cult to picket military funerals. We are not ourselves at peace with those words. So it is no surprise foreigners have difficulty with them.

As Islamic extremists continue a campaign of anti-American violence over “Innocence of Muslims,” a risibly wretched piece of Islamophobic propaganda, it is apparently an article of faith for many in that world that the film represents a U.S. government attack upon Islam. CNN's Fareed Zakaria says they have “a lack of … understanding of freedom of speech and opinion.”

That's putting it mildly. And that ignorance has become a potentially deadly flash point in recent years. It used to be that only a few high-profile, theoretically responsible individuals had access to the world stage and the ability to affect world events. But with the advent of YouTube, Google, Facebook and Twitter, it is now conceivable some shlub in Fort Lauderdale could start a riot in Mogadishu. So the most dangerous words ever written have become more dangerous still.

Small wonder, then, that radio host Tom Joyner recently called on Google to block the offending video from its search engine, which Google has refused to do, though it has blocked the video in Egypt, Libya, India and Indonesia, in accordance, it says, with laws in those countries. At the other end of the spectrum, Newt Gingrich told CNN last week that the U.S. should use this episode to “teach the Muslim world about freedom” — free speech in particular.



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