Analyze the limits of free speec
h in America in the light of the following documents.
Doc A: Hillary Clinton on Wikileaks Nov 29th 2010.
Doc B: TIME magazine Sunday, October 03, 2010. How Should America Handle Extreme Speech?
Doc C: Extract concerning The Pentagon Papers
, 1971 Justice Hugo L. Black.
How is free speech defined? What restricts free speech?
The issue of Internet and free access to information?
When is the line between expression and unacceptable discourse crossed?
Who can decide who can say what?
“In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers
an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them.” Alexis de Tocqueville.
The three present documents deal with different issues but they have an overall theme in common that is
the limits of free speech in America. Since the creation of the Constitution and the respective
Amendments issued by the Founding Fathers in the Bill of Rights the first amendment has triggered a
wide range of cases that raised the question of how to read and interpret the right to free speech.
The present three documents handle three different cases of ambivalent events concerning the right to
free speech. In doc A Hillary Clinton focuses on the danger caused by Wikileaks through the publication
of “classified documents” concerning the US government’s decisions on various aspects. In doc B the
emphasis is placed on the question of “extreme speech” and where the limits of free speech should be
placed, illustrated through the particular case of pastor Terry Jones appeal to burn the Koran. In doc C
justice Black stresses the right to free press in the Watergate affair.
Hence, the three documents are demonstrations of various issues which all have the same
concern that are the interpretation of the First Amendment and how far free speech can go. The overall
question to be dealt with is, to what extend can we talk about the right to free speech? What are the
factors on which free speech can be measured? In other words, who is allowed to say what when and
what are the consequences of inappropriate expression?
I. An Inalienable Right
a. The First Amendment: the purpose of a Bill of Rights
The right to free speech is stated in the First Amendment that is the in the Bill of Rights. Hence it exists
since the beginning of the United States and represents an inalienable right granted to the American
people. It states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the
free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people
peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” These rights have
been added to the Constitution to protect the citizens and restrict judicial and executive power. That is
why the Supreme Court ruled in favor of The New York Times. According to the excerpt by Black the
purpose of the right to free speech is “to serve the governed and not the governors”. The Doc A seems to
argue on the contrary, since Hillary Clinton the current secretary of state states that the publication by
Wikileaks of classified government documents is illegal and consequently dangerous. Danger is also a
theme that is tackled by the Times article, which centers on question of what should be done from the
part of the government against “extreme speech”.
Ultimately, the question of limitation of free speech is closely linked to the three documents.
How is free speech defined? What restricts free speech?
b. The Limitation of free speech: what is condemnable?
Eventually, limitation and restriction of free speech becomes a complex question relating to the basis of
the fundamental rights of America. Free speech as stated in Doc B can become a way to express
“extreme speech” such as pastor Terry Jones, who declared to burn Korans on the 9/11 anniversary.
The article states the question “So how do we cut off the oxygen without suffocating the rights we
prize?” (36). Actually, it is the core of the complexity of the right to free speech. Who can decide what
shall be said and how the representatives of power should react to inappropriate speech or appeals.
There are several things that are not allowed to be said such as “shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater”
(l.9). The limits of free speech are blurred, since it is a notion that is very difficult to restrict in strictly
theoretical terms it remains a field of controversy what exactly can be said.
“Legally unprotected categories of speech include obscenity, defamation, incitement to crime, and
fighting words, as well as harassment, privileged communications, trade secrets, classified material,
copyright, patents, military conduct, commercial speech such as advertising, and time, place and manner
restrictions” (Wikipedia). The three documents
II. The Consequences of free speech
Hillary Clinton condemns Wikileaks as an attack against the whole international scene. She
argues on behalf of US government. But the press cannot be condemned to have published that
information because it is their right to do so. She stresses the consequences and the problems, which
those publications entail. She emphasizes the dangerous aspect of such publication on various levels
such as national security and on the international scene, too, damaging the diplomatic relations between
the different countries.
Danger is also emphasized in the article: the very message of the pastor Terry Jones to burn
Qurans and the impact that such speech has on people. But also Fred Phelps who’s appeal, “God hates
fags” is going to be judged by the Supreme Court.
b. On public/national level
The article tackles directly the issue raised indirectly in doc A and C. The journalist presents the
very ambiguities, which persist in the vast notion of free speech. Who is allowed to say what and to
whom? The very much-mediatized event of the Quran burning initiated by the controversial pastor Terry
Jones from Florida provoked a real international disaster, which seems to have shed light on the
question of what people are allowed to say. In regard of the American people, it is important to bear in
mind that a society is a heterogeneous identity, hence the variety of point of views and opinions.
Consequently, certain statements can divide the nations unity and become issues of national conflicts.
As the journalist states: “That we have fierce fights in this country that are not resolved with violence.
And that even the rights we value most are not simple or sure but subject to legal debate, prayerful
reflection and the collective judgment of a rowdy public.” (44/47).
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c. On the international level
The fact that Terry Jones promotes an act of discrimination in reaction to 9/11 turns the event to
an international issue, which through the vast and rapid distribution of media had political and
diplomatic consequences. Those consequences involved several countries and the US army such as the
NATO and the other organizations that secure a certain safety abroad assured by the US army. The
proclaimed act of burning the Quran is a provocation and cannot be considered as an idea coming out of
the blue that will not trigger harsh reactions from the aimed group, here the Muslim world.
The question is not only if anybody can say whatever he/she wants, but it is also a question of
media coverage: the article states “a media circus” (5) meaning that if the media had not covered Jones’
statements/ appeal the impact of his “extreme speech” would have never triggered such a strong
international reaction. Therefore, the question of media coverage becomes central. In times like ours
when the media influence is connecting the different parts of the world, because anyone can have access
to anything that is published anywhere in the world, free speech becomes problematic because it can
provoke reactions and hence create conflicts that take tremendous dimensions.
III. Power vs. free speech
a. The Executive’s Restraints
The three documents have one thing in common the fact that free speech and the government are
two forces that are difficult to bring together. It seems that in Doc A Hillary Clinton as part of the
government condemns Wikileaks publication hence condemns the consequences of free speech. Doc B
tackles the relation differently, questioning the role of the government concerning people who are using
free speech to promote ideas, which are clearly hate speeches.
“Laws prohibiting hate speech are unconstitutional in the United States, outside of obscenity,
defamation, incitement to riot, and fighting words. The United States federal government and state
governments are broadly forbidden by the First Amendment of the Constitution from restricting speech”
However, her speech stresses much more the increasing efforts and actions taken by the Obama
administration than she does actually condemn Wikileaks. Hence, her intervention illustrates how
important and right-granting the First Amendment
is. As the present Secretary of State she is in the
position of responsibility and the fact that those “classified” information were published demonstrate the
freedom and liberties the press can take. An underlying factor is the demonstration of the system’s
failure. How can such classified information be so easily disclosed? Moreover the purpose of her
intervention seems to be the defense of the Obama administration and to stress the various initiatives
this government takes in order to make this world a better place.
The justice Black has an original reading of the constitution and points out the importance of free speech
especially concerning the written press. “In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the press
the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy” (44). His argument is built upon
the history of the United States and its founding fathers. Hence he does not want a revisionist reading of
the Constitution. In that case it would be interesting to see whether or not he would have the same vision
concerning Terry Jones’ case or Fred Phelps statement. Doc B questions this origin reading and point
out that now
c. The Governed vs. Government