‘The First Thing a Principle Does Is Kill Somebody.’

by Nancy Jane Moore

Bill of RightsFree speech isn’t free.

We have the right in the United States to say what’s on our minds, but speech still has consequences. The old saw — “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me” — is nonsense. Words can do a great deal of harm, even honest words that should be spoken, much less ugly, hateful lies.

The guarantee of free speech in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is a great principle, but as Lord Peter says in Gaudy Night, “The first thing a principle does is kill somebody.”

We’ve seen this in action in recent weeks. What is by all accounts a dishonest and hate-filled video about the Prophet Muhammed was released to the world on You Tube and led to the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and several members of his staff.

People died because the U.S. recognizes the right to free speech.

The video may be a scam. The person who made it apparently has a criminal record that was found on checkpeople.com and it’s quite possible he made it for reasons other than insulting Muslims. Likewise, the murder of the ambassador may have been a carefully orchestrated plot that took advantage of anger over the video.

None of that matters. In a country that didn’t respect free speech, the video would have been suppressed.

But even garbage like that video is protected by the First Amendment. And that’s a good thing. Of all the rights set forth in the U.S. Constitution, those guaranteed by the First Amendment are the most fundamental. Here’s what it says:

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.

Without these freedoms we would be unable to enforce most of the others set out in the Bill of Rights or the Constitution as a whole. Being able to say what we think, to publish books that we deem important, to gather with our neighbors to demand changes — these are the things that protect us from overreaching by those in power.

The only way to make sure those rights stay strong is to avoid censorship, because once we declare some things too vile to be published or inquire into the legitimacy of a publication, we open the door to suppression of things that need to be said. Unfortunately, that does mean some truly dreadful crap will be put out there and some of it will cause harm.

That brings us to porn, and specifically to the argument raised by some feminists — including law professor Catharine MacKinnon — that pornography violates women’s civil rights and should therefore be banned. She hasn’t been successful; city ordinances based on her theories have been found unconstitutional.

I can’t say that I’m partial to most porn, particularly the anti-woman sort, but I think MacKinnon’s solution is worse than the problem. It’s virtually impossible to write a law that only excludes the garbage and still permits works that include violent sexual acts but have something significant to say.

If such laws became the norm, I have a bad feeling that they’d end up being used against women writing sexually explicit books, like those Marissa Day blogged about here on Sunday, even though such books are usually in celebration of women’s sexuality. The line between porn and erotica is not well-defined either literarily or legally and there are plenty of people out there who are offended by books in which women enjoy sex.

Anybody remember the nanny software that blocked websites based on “offensive” words? Turned out it also blocked sites on breast cancer.

Don’t get me wrong. I think MacKinnon has a point about the anti-woman nature of a lot of porn. Some of it is ugly, hateful crap and at the very least it perpetuates false ideas about men and women. The only thing worse than letting it be published is banning it.

It isn’t only hate speech and ugly porn that can be harmful, though. Great literature can cause violent reactions, as can investigative reporting or strongly worded essays. Sometimes the amount of controversy is a surprise to the author — I’m sure Salmon Rushdie knew The Satanic Verses would offend some people, but he probably didn’t expect the level of riots or that he would have to have major seccurity for many years. Others may have hoped their words would lead to action; Uncle Tom’s Cabin probably didn’t cause the U.S. Civil War on its own, but Harriet Beecher Stowe certainly intended to stir people up.

Such books should be written and published, of course, regardless of the risks that come with them. But we shouldn’t forget that some books can be very dangerous indeed — both the ones we agree with and the ones we despise.

The First Amendment is the most fundamental of our rights in the U.S., but never forget that our freedom to say and write what we think comes at a price.



‘The First Thing a Principle Does Is Kill Somebody.’ — 8 Comments

  1. Thanks for this; it’s a valid point. So of course I’m going to nitpick.
    I’m not sure that that video would have been suppressed in a country that doesn’t believe in free speech, unless you add a qualification. It would have been suppressed in a country that doesn’t believe in free speech and doesn’t have substantial support for the message of the video.
    Not having free speech is a way to choose what gets suppressed and what doesn’t, and there’s no historical data to defend the theory that nasty speech gets suppressed more than kinder, or more thoughtful speech.

    • As always, Debbie, you provide a thoughtful response. You’re right. I didn’t intend to imply that nasty speech gets suppressed more; I started with that because it’s easier to understand why people want to ban things like the video. And once you decide some things should be banned, it’s easy to ban anything that rocks the boat.

      Mostly, though, I just wanted to point out that free speech is dangerous. I’m a First Amendment absolutist — I really don’t think there’s another freedom that’s as important — but I want people to realize that words are not innocuous.

    • Here in Germany, a rightwing anti-immigrant hate group has announced that it plans to publicly show the whole movie (even though nobody knows if the whole movie even exists), which caused a discussion about freedom of speech and freedom of the arts.

      Now I wonder why all of the people who are so concerned about free speech and freedom of the arts with regards to an anti-muslim video are completely silent about all the films (mostly horror films and mostly American, i.e. films that are perceived to be “trash”) that are cut to ribbons and banned from public exhibition in Germany altogether in the interest of protecting our youth. Or why they were silent about attempts to ban so-called “killer video games” (Counterstrike and the like), supposedly because they cause school shootings and amok attacks? Cause I sincerely doubt that all of the politicians suddenly jumping out of the woodwork to defend the right of an anti-immigrant hate group to publicly show an anti-muslim film would defend my right to publicly show a bloody slasher film to an audience of adults.

      Even countries that proclaim freedom of speech at any given opportunity, tend to find reasons to suppress some forms of speech for the greater good of society. In Germany, it’s media violence and speech that supposedly violates the privacy rights of someone (we’ve had cases of romans a clef getting banned outright by the courts because someone saw their privacy rights violated), while the US quickly forgets its commitment to free speech in the case of things deemed “obscene”.

      • Another good point. All cultures have something that’s unacceptable, but what that is varies. And sometimes challenging that very unacceptability is the most important thing a writer can do. There’s a difference between porn and a sexually explicit scene that gives us a greater understanding of our sexual issues, a difference between gratuitous violence and a scene that lets us look into our human heart of darkness. But it’s hard to define that line.

  2. “I have a bad feeling that they’d end up being used against women writing sexually explicit books.”

    That has been, historically, the case. Feminist literature, literature about contraception, and literature about homosexuality has also been banned as obscene. Over to Avedon Carol and Feminists Against Censorship.

    • Thanks for the link, Randolph. Nice to see activist feminists against censorship. I have debated this issue with other feminists and am glad to find other strong support.

  3. Well, actually, the evidence is that this was a pre-planned and coordinated terrorist attack having nothing to do with the video.

    Another problem is that suppressing speech is often suppressing scapegoats.