Free Speech and Self-Censorship

The recent and ongoing protests (including the killing of the US Ambassador in Benghazi, Libya) in the Muslim world against the US because of an anti-Muslim amateur movie originating in America have brought the topic of free speech back to mind.

Everyone can remember the last time this happened (the cartoons). A few people I know remarked that it was a travesty because we have the freedom of speech and at least one asserted that Western government sshould have rallied around the cartoonists to support their right to free speech.

That sounds laudable. But is that really the issue? It feels bad if we discover that newspapers are self-censoring, not publishing things their readers would like to see. But is self-censorship akin to a loss of the right to free speech?

It certainly does mean people have to watch what they say, which is unfortunate in many ways. Still, you have to watch what you say in polite company and around children, too, or there might be protests in the "society" you find yourself in. Freedom of speech does not mean you will be free from the consequences of that speech. The government may not arrest you for saying something that rubs someone else the wrong way, but that person might very well kick you out of his house--as is surely his right, too.

We need to remain vigilant, of course, but in the US at the very least, free speech is very well protected, and the Supreme Court tends to err on the side of allowing speech when it is debatable. So we're free to say what we want, and we should say what needs to be said when it's important, but we also have to weigh consequences and benefits: Was this video important? Were the cartoons? Are they important enough to countenance violence, outrage, and diplomatic issues? That's a different topic entirely, and it doesn't really have that much to do with free speech.


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