Thursday, August 25, 2005 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Fighting Stupidity with Censorship

Televangelist Pat Robertson recently made news with some fairly stupid comments about "taking out" Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

Many critics rightly condemned Mr. Robertson's suggestion that the United States should consider assassinating leaders of state with which we do not agree. In this case, it's particularly outrageous since (a) Chavez has said nothing to threaten America directly, and (b) even if he had, it would not qualify as grounds for assassination. After all, it's just Venezuela we're talking about here. I don't think we need to worry about them sending an armada up to invade us anytime soon.

But as stupid as it was for Rev. Robertson to suggest assassination as a solution to whatever "problem" it is Mr. Chavez poses, I certainly think he has the right to raise the issue and debate it with others. But apparently another Reverend doesn't agree. Rev. Jesse Jackson says that the Federal Communications Commission should fine Rev. Robertson for his comments. "The FCC must have some standard on the advocacy of violence," Jackson said.

Here we have a classic example of everything that is wrong with censorship. Let's imagine for a moment that the FCC did take action again Mr. Robertson or anyone who suggested violence against foreign leaders. Certainly Rev. Robertson is not the first, not will he be the last, to argue that assassination is a useful method of achieving foreign policy objectives.

First, it would be extremely difficult to enforce speech restrictions on individuals advocating violence against others. Would the FCC be fining the TV and radio stations that aired Robertson's remarks, or would they try to fine Robertson himself? What if Robertson's comments had first appeared in a newspaper, newsletter or on his online blog? Does the FCC really have the ability to control that speech? And where does one draw the line here? Does anyone who says "I really think we ought to kill that guy" when referring to a foreign leader get fined?

Second, as much as I would personally disagree with advocates of assassination as a tool of foreign policy, I think they should have their say. The way to fight back is not to gag their mouths, it is to engage them in debate and collectively work together to show them why they are wrong. In other words, the solution to stupid speech is more, and better, speech. Vigorous public debate, not censorship, is the way to answer disturbing arguments from a few bad apples.

Now I know that there are occasions when "fighting words" can honestly lead to violence. But there's a whole body of jurisprudence dealing with those cases which reveals that, over time, we have wisely moved away from prior restraint, fines or other forms of legal sanctions for such speech. Instead, the courts have increasingly placed faith in deliberative democracy as the proper solution. As The Freedom Forum website summarizes:

"Tellingly, despite continued reaffirmation of the fighting-words doctrine, the Supreme Court has declined to uphold any convictions for fighting words since [1942]. In fact, in Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1 (1949), the Court immediately began a long process of narrowing and reshaping the broad scope of the original fighting-words doctrine."

Importantly, in later cases such as R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377 (1992), the Court noted that fighting words often have some value and that we should allow citizens to express themselves very frankly because there may be some value to hearing what they have to say. (John Stuart Mill's classic defense of freedom of speech in "On Liberty" was partially premised on this notion).

Of course, I can think of some tough cases that likely cross the line and constitute a breach of the peace. If a loony guy stands up at a presidential address and says "I'm here to kill the President," well, that guys probably is at least going to earn a trip down to the local FBI office for an interview. And there's the classic example of the joker who shouts fire in a crowded theater. But these are exceedingly rare cases in which government action would probably be acceptable. More importantly, these are cases in which the individuals are present at the scene and directly threatening the individuals who are the object of their ire. That's certainly different than someone uttering something stupid on television, radio or the Internet.

In the case of a TV preacher advocating the assassination of a foreign leader, therefore, I would hope reasonable people would see why censorship is not the proper solution. Let the nutcases have their say, and then we'll put them in their place with the power of the written and spoken word. Indeed, that's already occurred in this case. Rev. Robertson was forced to apologize for his remarks within 48 hours of uttering such stupidity thanks to pressure from countless individuals and groups. That's the power of free speech at work. He had his say and then we had ours.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 6:12 PM | Free Speech