Free Speech Doesn’t Mean Freedom from Criticism

The latest gaffe by the Republican presidential nominee makes me realize that many Americans (including the candidate) misunderstand freedom of speech. The First Amendment precludes the government from censoring speech or throwing a U.S. citizen in jail for the content of his/her article, book, film, blog post, town square tirade, etc. (with a some exceptions regarding national security).

Beyond that, you’re on your own. The First Amendment does not prevent the government (or anyone else) from criticizing the content of your speech — and it certainly doesn’t obligate the government to support and defend your crazy rant.

In my reporter days, I endured the occasional scathing communication from mayors, city council members, county supervisors, school board members and at least one state university president. Turns out government officials have free speech rights, too. I never interpreted their criticism of my work as an attack on my right to free speech.  Nobody ever tried to throw me in jail (over something I’d written, anyway.)

Similarly, the statement by U.S. diplomats that Romney recently criticized didn’t repudiate the right of some yahoo to make an anti-Muslim video. It disavowed the video’s content.

On Tuesday night, Romney’s attacked what he called an “apology” of the American-made, anti-Muslim video that prompted protests in Egypt and Libya, and now elsewhere in the Muslim world. Radicals used the video as a totally lame excuse to attack the U.S. embassy in Libya and kill four Americans.

Prior to the attack, U.S. embassy officials in Cairo attempted to calm the angry mob outside their walls by posting the following on Twitter: “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”

Note that it didn’t say, “That guy had no right to make that video and we’re going to have him arrested!” Nevertheless, Romney later said that the statement suggested “that there’s something wrong with the right of free speech.”

Um, no, it didn’t.

First of all, he obviously failed to consider that the officials were in potential danger and maybe trying to stave off an attack. Regardless, the embassy’s statement was completely appropriate. In America, you can say it, but the government doesn’t have to support it. I mean, really, should the U.S. government stand behind every dumb thing Americans say, write, record or film? Are city officials obligated to remain silent when the Ku Klux Klan marches through town? No!

Free speech means that we can say whatever we want, even if the government hates what we say. And that’s a great message to send to oppressed people in oppressed lands where we’d like to see free societies flourish. That point is not lost on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. According to the AP on Wednesday:

“Clinton says the film is ‘disgusting and reprehensible.’ …But Clinton says the U.S. would never stop Americans from expressing their views, no matter how distasteful.”

What she said.