These are dangerous arguments. Consider how we would respond if an anti-abortion group were so furious at a pro-choice film that it blew up the theater. I very much doubt that we would be accusing the filmmakers of incitement, even if they knew in advance that the terrorists were lurking.
One might object that there is a difference between insulting an individual and insulting a religion. There is indeed — and our sympathies should be with the individual. Followers of a religion can turn to their fellow believers for solace. Often, they can turn to a tradition that has survived centuries or millenniums of mockery and abuse. Believers don’t turn from God because God has been mocked; they turn from the mocker.
The individual, by contrast, must bear the insults. The more public the individual is, the greater the abuse that the Constitution allows us to heap on his or her shoulders. The cost of freedom is indeed terrible. But the cost of restrictions on that freedom is more terrible still.
In the United States, we routinely deride religions. We make best-sellers of books launching often-uninformed attacks on the very idea of God, and give rave reviews to a Broadway show making crude mockery of Mormonism. The insensitivity and boorishness of those who enjoy attacking the faith of others does not strip them of their rights of freedom of expression.
Now, one must reasonably ask whether we would be a better country if we were more restrained. The philosopher Michael Sandel in particular has asserted that our freedoms are vindicated in our ability to restrain rather than indulge our urges. This is a fair point, and a correct one. In the manner and multitude of our self-expression, we are growing more childlike, not more mature. That failing, however, lies in our collective character, not in our respect for liberty.
I have said before that I am a near-absolutist on the subject of free speech. I defend the right of imbeciles to express themselves in ways that are offensive and wounding to people who have done nothing to deserve it. Naturally one would prefer to defend free speech in the name of such once-banned classics as Ulysses and 1984. One would prefer to defend a free press that is ferreting out the Pentagon Papers.
Those opportunities rarely arise. If our culture instead produces offensive junk, then that is where the ramparts must be built — not because offensive junk is a positive good, but because the power to censor is far too dangerous to be placed in the hands of government.
(Some observers have pointed out, correctly, that even if the U.S. government can’t censor the video, Google, owner of YouTube, is a private corporation and can do as it likes. Given Google’s size, and YouTube’s ubiquity, I am wary of endorsing any call for a crackdown.)
When we remember the periods of censorship in our history, we remember them, as we should, with embarrassment. There are censors today — Dworkin herself, who died in 2005 and wrote such brilliant, cutting prose, was often among them — and the impulse is always tempting. Words and images do wound. Wounds untended do fester. But aside from simply turning away, the only antidote the Constitution allows is arguing back — in short, more speech.
In much of the world, governments have taken on the responsibility of protecting their people from unpleasant images. In the U.S., we have gone a different way, choosing a more genuine freedom of speech. But speech is only free if we protect it when we hate it.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University.