A lot of wrongheaded people with an irrational fetish for holy symbols think their hurt feelings justify censorship. They demand legal action to stop the blasphemy.
Islamic protesters? Nope. Try the U.S. Senate—and the American public, too.
The furor in the Mideast over an obscure video mocking the Prophet Muhammad has prompted many Americans to pat themselves on the back for their devotion to free speech. Some of them have gotten a charge out of lecturing the Arab world about the value of it.
Others, such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have done so out of duty. "To us, to me personally, this video is disgusting and reprehensible," she said Thursday. But: "We do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views, no matter how distasteful they may be."
Sure we do. Just ask – oh, Senator Hillary Clinton, D-NY.
Six years ago Clinton and Utah Sen. Robert Bennett, a Republican, co-sponsored legislation to make burning the American flag a federal crime.
Clinton's bill was drawn fairly narrowly, as such things go: It outlawed only flag-burning, not flag desecration. The latter can include all kinds of offenses: stepping on the flag, making disposable American-flag napkins or sewing an American flag to the seat of your jeans.
To her credit, Clinton voted against a much broader flag-desecration amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That vote put her in the minority: 66 Senators voted in favor of the measure – just one vote shy of the two-thirds majority it needed to pass. (George Allen of Virginia, now running to regain the seat he lost to Jim Webb, voted yes.)
The amendment was proposed because the Supreme Court had struck down, by a deplorably narrow 5-4 split, earlier statutory prohibitions on flag-burning. In his dissent, conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist opined that the flag was "not just another 'idea' or 'point of view' . . . Millions and millions of Americans regard it with an almost mystical reverence."
Well. If mystical reverence justifies censorship, then the reverence in which millions of Muslims hold the Prophet would justify censoring movies, political cartoons, "South Park" episodes, and a whole lot more.
Conservatives today should be glad Rehnquist's views did not prevail then. During the current controversy over the video mocking Muhammad, some on the right have been quite vocal about the importance of free speech. But you have to wonder whether those stirring paeans to unrestricted expression are really just another way to poke a finger in the eye of those swarthy, jihad-lovin' A-rabs. Back in 2006, the flag-burning amendment had considerable conservative support.
It still does: The 2012 Republican platform says "Old Glory should be given legal protection against desecration."
And the flag is hardly unique. By a 410-3 vote last week, the House of Representatives passed a newer version of the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a crime to lie about military service or decoration. The Supreme Court had to strike that down on First Amendment grounds as well.
Then there's porn. Mitt Romney has signed a pledge to enforce the nation's anti-porn laws to his utmost ability. The Republican platform supports "making the Internet family-friendly" (!) through the vigorous enforcement of current anti-obscenity laws. Michele Bachmann signed an even more puritanical pledge, agreeing that "all forms of pornography should be banned." Apparently some conservatives are fine with Shariah law so long as it's based in the Bible, or their interpretation thereof.
To be fair, conservatives often look like rank amateurs when it comes to suppressing speech. Troll through the archives of campus speech codes and you will find a level of censorship that is simply astounding – much of it aimed at protecting the tender feelings of the most easily offended person on campus. For brevity's sake, let one small example suffice: As recently as 2010, George Mason University in Northern Virginia prohibited "any form of bigotry….whether verbal, written, psychological, direct, or implied." Try to find a logical limit to the concept of implied psychological bigotry.
The trouble with protecting feelings is that advocates of free expression have them, too: Many of them are genuinely pained by the prospect of government silencing people by threat of force. Flag-burners and bigots also have feelings – rather strong ones, judging by their willingness to suffer the hostility of their fellow citizens. Likewise, gays and lesbians have feelings that are hurt when religious conservatives call them sinful, and religious conservatives have feelings that are hurt when gay-rights activists call them haters. If we go around silencing any speech that might hurt someone's tender ego, then before you know it nobody will be able to say much of anything. Defending free speech requires defending it when the speech makes you mad, not just the other guy. That's a lesson that seems to need repeating – over and over.