Nothing tests one’s intellectual honesty and ability to apply principles consistently more than free speech controversies. It is exceedingly easy to invoke free speech values in defense of political views you like. It is exceedingly difficult to invoke them in defense of views you loathe. But the true test for determining the authenticity of one’s belief in free speech is whether one does the latter, not the former.
The anti-US protests sweeping the Muslim world have presented a perfect challenge to test the free speech convictions of both the American right and the Democratic party version of the left. Neither is faring particularly well.
Let’s begin with the Democrats. On Thursday, the Obama White House called executives at Google, the parent company of YouTube, and “requested” that the company review whether the disgusting anti-Muslim film that has sparked such unrest should be removed on the ground that it violates YouTube’s terms of service.
In response, free speech groups such as the ACLU and EFF expressed serious concerns about the White House’s actions. While acknowledging that there was nothing legally compulsory about the White House’s request (indeed, Google announced the next day they would leave the video up), the civil liberties groups nonetheless noted – correctly – that “it does make us nervous when the government throws its weight behind any requests for censorship”, and that “by calling YouTube from the White House, they were sending a message no matter how much they say we don’t want them to take it down; when the White House calls and asks you to review it, it sends a message and has a certain chilling effect”.
Right-wing commenters loudly decried the White House’s actions on free speech grounds. Some of their rhetoric was overblown (the sentiment behind the request was understandable, and they did nothing to compel its removal). But, for reasons made clear by the ACLU and EFF, these conservative objections were largely correct.