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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Speak Your Mind

Freedom of speech has made the news a couple of times this week. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that the famously hateful Westboro Baptist "Church" of Topeka "Kansas" has the constitutional right to spew verbal venom at military (and other funerals). The group, which believes that God is punishing America for its permissive attitudes towards homosexuality and other perceived sins against morality, organizes protests at military funerals, where followers brandish signs reading "God hates fags" and "Thank God for dead soldiers." Charming folks.

Today came news that, despite a request from Congress, the provocative videos from anti-American Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki can still be found on YouTube. The difficulty in removing Awlaki's videos stems from two major issues. One, many of the cleric's videos are relatively innocuous, featuring sermons on less controversial issues like Islamic history or current social issues. Two, the sheer volume of videos overwhelms YouTube's capacity for monitoring, so the company relies on its users to "flag" potentially objectionable material. Once flagged, videos are reviewed by YouTube employees to see if they should, in fact, be removed. In other words, while YouTube agrees in principle with the idea that videos that incite violence have no place on the website, they fight an uphill battle in trying to remove every example thereof.

We agree with the Supreme Court decision on principle. As Voltaire did not say, we may not agree with what the "Church" says, we will defend to the death their right to be douchebags. OK, maybe not to the death. But as offensive as these people are, they do have the right to say whatever they want. Local officials are equally free to set up "buffer zones" around funerals to keep these people a reasonable distance from the mourners. And, of course, better-intentioned citizens can and often do come out to drown out the haters. In a sense, we appreciate the utter egregiousness of the Westboors: They may bring some on-the-fence conservative types over to a more liberal viewpoint, if only to avoid association with these folks.

As for al-Awlaki, YouTube is taking the right approach. Censorship is almost never the answer. Sure, people shouldn't yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Or vice versa. But we don't think al-Awlaki is doing that. Yes, his anti-American speeches advocating violence should come down, but blanket censorship is not the answer. Some will say that he has inspired violent, murderous acts. He probably has. We wonder, though, in the absence of al-Awlaki's speech, whether those who killed at "his" instigation would not have found some other excuse. Clearly, these were troubled individuals to begin with.

It's been said before, but we'll say it here again: The solution to offensive speech is not censorship, but more speech. Let's hear it.

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