Monday, September 17, 2012

Protecting your right to free speech - as long as you're 'one of us' that is.

© Alex Brandon/AP
Secretary of state Hillary Clinton speaks
about the anti-US protests happening
in the Middle East.
Protecting your right to free speech - as long as you're 'one of us' that is.
Sept 16, 2012 | Glenn Greenwald

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.

In sum, the White House has no business sticking its nose into which videos YouTube decides to publish or suppress. Corporations that depend on the US government for all sorts of vital benefits and contracts, and which are subject to its regulations and punishments, will always perceive White House "requests" as being far less optional than similar requests from random users. Nobody should want the US government insinuating itself into the determination by private internet companies about which political speech they will allow.

The White House's request to YouTube provoked almost no objections from Democrats, who - when there is a Republican president - tightly bind themselves to the ACLU and parade around as free speech crusaders. To the extent they acknowledged any of this at all, their responses ranged from indulging patently absurd pretenses (this was just a polite request from the White House: what's wrong with that?) to affirmative justification (the film is intended to cause violence and thus should be removed).

Just imagine if the Bush White House had called YouTube and "requested" that it remove anti-war videos on the ground that such videos were endangering US troops. That is hardly some fantastical hypothetical. The claim that administration critics were "emboldening the enemy" was a very common trope during the Bush era (an ugly trope that some progressives now repeat toward conservative critics of Obama). John Ashcroft infamously announced when testifying before the Senate in December 2001 that civil libertarian objections to administration policies "only aid terrorists" and "give ammunition to America's enemies".

Does anyone doubt that if the Bush White House had "requested" in the wake of 9/11 that all anti-war or anti-administration videos be "reviewed" to see if they should remain on the internet - on the not-implausible ground that they might encourage attacks on American troops or personnel - that Democrats would have little trouble seeing why it is dangerous to have the executive branch taking action to influence private internet companies to suppress political speech? The actions of the Obama White House are no less inappropriate.

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