Former Time magazine editor Richard Stengel admits that as a journalist he relied upon the right to free speech guaranteed in the First Amendment.
But now some really yucky people are making use of the First Amendment. Thus Stengel, who is also CEO of the National Constitution, argues for curtailing free speech. He made the pitch in a Washington Post op-ed headlined “Why America Needs a Hate Speech Law,” which is behind the paywall.
This epiphany was triggered, as Stengel tells it, by discussions with “sophisticated Arab diplomats when Stengel was serving as an official in the Obama State Department. He writes:
Even the most sophisticated Arab diplomats that I dealt with did not understand why the First Amendment allows someone to burn a Koran. Why, they asked me, would you ever want to protect that?
To which Reason's Nick Gillespie responds:
Is he kidding? "Why would a country founded in large part on the Enlightenment values of free speech and religious freedom allow free speech and religious freedom?" doesn't seem like a tough question to answer.
He doesn't name the countries his "most sophisticated Arab diplomats represented, so we need to fill that detail in. Let's assume they were from Saudi Arabia, a country completely unworthy of emulation when it comes to respecting basic human rights and whose Prince Mohammed bin Salman has taken responsibility for the brutal torture and murder of Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
We allow the burning of the Koran for the same reasons we allow the burning of King James and St. Jerome Bibles, the desecration of the U.S. flag, and the potential libeling of elected officials: We believe that individuals have rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. With a few exceptions such as "fighting words," "true threats," and obscenity, we know that it's better to allow more speech rather than less.
Surprisingly, people get along better when they can more freely speak their minds. The search for "truth"—or at least consensus—benefits from free expression, too, as ideas and attitudes are subjected to examination from friends and foes alike. But the pragmatic answer is ultimately secondary to the expressive one: We allow free speech because no one, certainly not the government, has a right to curtail it.
Stengel believes the First Amendment hails from “a simpler era:”
"The Russians understood that our free press and its reflex toward balance and fairness would enable Moscow to slip its destructive ideas into our media ecosystem," Stengel explained. "That's partly because the intellectual underpinning of the First Amendment was engineered for a simpler era. The amendment rests on the notion that the truth will win out in what Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas called 'the marketplace of ideas.'"
Stengel goes on:
“All speech is not equal,” he wrote. “And where truth cannot drive out lies, we must add new guardrails. I’m all for protecting ‘thought that we hate,’ but not speech that incites hate. It undermines the very values of a fair marketplace of ideas that the First Amendment is designed to protect.”
All speech is not equal, but this sentence is uncomfortably evocative of one of the commandments in Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” Guardrails is also a nice Orwellian touch—it means government control. For a sophisticated journalist, Stengel seems a bit irony challenged: i.e., censorship will produce a real marketplace of ideas.
Stengel was for the First Amendment before he was against it.