Free Speech is not Free from Consequences

All actions have consequences, including how we express our ideas and ourselves.  Often our expressions have unforeseen or unintended consequences.  Yesterday’s attack on the US Consulate in Libya that took the lives of four people is reported to have been a retaliatory response to a YouTube video.  The video disrespects Islam by ridiculing Muhammad.  I haven’t added my clicks to the view count, and I’m uninterested in commenting on the video itself, but I am interested in the consequences of free speech.

All expressions—especially those that reveal something we find real and true—expose us to some vulnerability.  Will the hearers disagree?  Will disagreement diminish me in their sight?  Will disagreement prompt action, like distancing from me or harming me?  Of course, in a presidential election season, we don’t need reminding that some expressions are not true and are designed to expose someone else’s vulnerability.  And some expressions are designed to provoke disagreement.  Some are designed to manipulate us or to bait us to respond in a way that benefits the speaker, if only to garner notoriety.  Perhaps the quip, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” turns out to be deadly after all.

Our First Amendment only protects free speech from government interference (or legal action) to the extent that the speech does not cause harm to others.  Specifically, speech that threatens others, incites immanent lawless action, states facts falsely, is obscene or sexually exploits children is not protected.  Happily for writers, speech owned by others merits no First Amendment protection, either.

The diversity of opinion on what qualifies for protection and on appropriate consequences provides the real grist for discussion.  Ted Nugent is legally free to make public political statements so long as he doesn’t threaten anybody or incite lawless action, but that does not exempt him from consequences like losing an employment contract.  How about the violence that saturates US entertainment—does it not incite more violence?  Isn’t it demonstrably harmful to our kids?  Tipper Gore made that argument, God love her, and her efforts met resounding defeat and castigation.

Personally, I have a hard time advocating limits on any artistic expression that a creator finds to be real or true, even if I find that expression upsetting or manipulative.  Embracing another’s truth and reality can expand our own.  On the other hand, I also believe we each carry responsibility for the footprint we leave in the world.  It is the people who threw grenades in the Libyan attack who are responsible for the deaths and damage, not the filmmaker.  The filmmaker’s contribution was to throw disrespect like a grenade.  Expressions that lack respect for others can do no good.  They leave only the footprints of destruction and human diminishment.

Join the conversation.  Do you think the filmmaker did the equivalent of yelling “fire” in a crowded global theater?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit

10 thoughts on “Free Speech is not Free from Consequences

  1. We are responsible for our actions. Why are people so driven to hate others? To express that hate? Such a lack of respect or others’ beliefs saddens me. It never helps a Situation. Both the maker of the video and those who reacted violently are responsible.

  2. I have not seen the video, nor do I care to. I get a little tired of people tossing out hatred and violent remarks and then claiming 1st amendment rights. Shouldn’t consciousness play a part in the words we choose to hurl out into the atomosphere?
    I have a feeling the framers of our constitution would roll over in their grave if they saw how we were using the Freedom of Speech card to annihilate others and their beliefs. I do not think that was their intention when writing that amendment.
    Thank you for a well written post and for opening up the topic.

    • We’re in the same boat on this one, Brenda. I try to do my little part NOT to give hateful, disrespectful speech an audience. Your point about the framers of the constitution is interesting. You got me thinking that your comment probably applies to more than the 1st amendment, too! Many thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  3. I would also say that, as a lawyer, I see a big difference between what is legal and what is “right.” just because someone legally can say something doesn’t mean they should.

  4. What I really want to know is why the film maker thought to produce such a disturbing hate piece. I have not seen it , but anyone who follows global news would not need to . We are all aware of what those Dutch cartoons did a few years ago , or what the quran burnings did in various places. I cannot believe this to be a naive action , but something purposeful designed to cause anguish and ultimately, violence. While most want peace , some do not . sadly.

    • Good question, Michelle. I wonder if it is designed to cause anguish and destruction, or if they’re collateral damage incurred in the quest for publicity. Someone deeply focused on self and his need for attention might not think through the consequences on others. That’s all conjecture on my part. I do not know.

  5. Pingback: You Choose the Consequences: Justice or Forgiveness | Across Traditions Blog

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