When a hateful fourteen-minute video was created intentionally to depict the prophet Mohammad in a manner designed to offend, the awareness of this trivial effort sparked worldwide protests against the United States and Western governments. It was used as a rationale for attacks against NATO forces in Afghanistan and was manipulated to put U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens in a vulnerable position where he was attacked and killed.
Is the response to stop offensive speech on the Internet?
Internet censorship is hardly new. China has laws designed to promote harmony and prosecutes cases to limit the risk of internal rebellion – whether aimed at the government or at ethnic minorities. Germany prohibits Nazi propaganda. Most Islamic states bar publications that insult the prophet Mohammad. The response to the recent video echo the 2005 controversy regarding a dozen editorial cartoons with depictions considered offensive. First Amendment scholar Eugene Volokh has noted some U.S. analysts suggesting a growing international norm in favor of censorship.
The same week, the British royal family is bringing suit for invasion of privacy related to nude photographs of Kate Middleton, citing French censorship laws. This could be another example of this international norm.
From the U.S. perspective, with our strong values in Free Speech, the debate seems odd. But the U.S. is actually the odd man out.
- The U.S. is one of the few nations that bars prior restraint. In most of the world, the government can suppress offensive speech.
- The U.S. has no laws to punish offensive speech, unless that speech falls into a very narrow set of exceptions (child pornography, obscenity, and invasion of privacy or defamation – only after the plaintiff wins in court, etc.).
- The U.S. has no anti-blasphemy laws or any official state-sponsored religion.
While these points seem obvious to Americans, they are unheard of in much of the world. As a result, the Administration’s strong denunciation of offensive content seems intentionally weak to someone who believes that content is only published with a government’s prior approval or at least with the ability to arrest those who blaspheme, offend, or violate the State’s position.
This comes at a time when the Internet itself is under redesign. Changes to Internet governance has allowed the Internet to better recognize Arabic, Cyrillic and Simplified Chinese in the domain names of websites. New top level domains will complement .com, .org, and other long-recognized domains. These efforts were intended by ICANN, NGOs and international treaty organizations to further democratize the Internet but instead could be utilized as tools to segment the Internet, increase censorship, and cut down on public discourse – in the name of harmony and peace.
Pressures to legitimize government censorship in order to save lives and promote order may create opportunities for greater government censorship than ever before. The U.S., Western Governments and NGOs committed to the rule of law and expansion of individual freedoms must undertake a global effort to educate the public on the values of free speech and the role of tolerance regarding the speech of others.
Despite suggestions that the time to censor has arrived, the real obligation is to teach that the cost of democracy is tolerance and civil liberties. Democracy without tolerance is mob rule; revolutions without civil liberties are little more than window dressing. The lessons from the Arab Spring must continue to be learned in the form of greater understanding and respect for civil discourse which lies at the heart of any civil democracy.