How long can liberty in America last when newspapers publish calls for censorship?

Today, the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed by Sarah Chayes, former special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, condemning the film widely blamed for the current wave of Islamist violence across much of the Muslim world, and arguing that the film does not warrant First Amendment protection.

Never mind, for a moment, the fact that Islamists attacked U.S. embassies and murdered a U.S. diplomat on the most recent 9/11, and that these Islamists would have seized any pretext to carry out their murderous rampages.

If and to the degree that these particular Islamists, on this particular occasion, lashed out in violence because an amateurish, then-obscure film hurt their feelings, that in no way alters the film’s proper status as protected speech under the First Amendment.

Chayes agrees with law professor Anthony Lewis: “If the result is violence, and that violence was intended” (or expected), then a work does not fall under First Amendment protection. But this “standard” obliterates the distinction between the intentional incitement of violence and mere criticism to which the targets of the criticism may react irrationally with violent rage.

To take an analogy from the civil rights era, it is the difference between inciting a mob to lynch a black man by calling for that action—clearly unprotected “speech”—and offering an impassioned speech against racism even if racists react violently to that speech.

Regardless of the content or the quality of the speech in question, speech as such does not cause, and is not responsible for, the irrational violence of others.

What happens if the censors win and the government restricts speech that might hurt the feelings of some group that might then react violently? If the censors win, then, in order to muzzle its critics, all any group need do is threaten to act violently if criticized.

Chayes’s “standard” calls for the death of the First Amendment—and thus the end of the American republic. Shame on her.

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Creative Commons Image: Photo © 2011 J. Ronald Lee

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