Opinion | Civil Rights

The slippery slope of trying to curb 'extremist' speech

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

The world watched in horror as a deranged killer live-streamed himself murdering Muslims attending two mosques in New Zealand. In the wake of the shooting, many have called for tighter restrictions on "extremist" speech by government.

The leaders of New Zealand and France have drafted the "Christchurch Call to Action," a nonbinding resolution that urges greater restriction of "extremist" speech and content. Many of our closest allies, such as Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom, signed on to this resolution, as have tech companies such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft.

But there was one notable hold-out: The United States government refused to sign on. That decision triggered an avalanche of critical media commentary, but it was the right thing to do if we are going to stand up for the value of free speech.  

Even though the Christchurch Call is nonbinding, it represents a dangerous step towards more heavy-handed government censorship. The problem is that the concept of "extremism" is highly subjective and malleable. Policies attempting to ban "extreme" speech will almost always lead to censorship. Even if it stems from good intentions, any effort to ban speech will be infected with bias.  

We tend to see things we agree with as normal and desirable, and the things we disagree with as abnormal, crazed or even threatening. During the 1950s, the U.S. government engaged in an inquisition against Americans with left-wing political views that could be labeled "pro-communist." Today, some argue that the opposition to gay marriage or the denial that climate change is a crisis are similarly extremes. Others argue that some kinds of speech critical of the state of Israel is anti-Semitic hate speech. In other words, be careful what you wish for because chances are that what you hold dear eventually will be labeled as "extremism" by someone else. 

The Russian government's crusade against "extremism" provides a particularly vivid example of how the concept can be used and abused. To combat Islamic terrorism, Russia enacted a law banning "extremist" material. But this law has been abused to stifle religious freedom and to purge debate critical of President Putin. Sacred texts such as the Bhagavad Gita or specific translations of the Qur'an were placed on the list, sparking a global backlash.

And when Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot engaged in a Moscow protest performance, the government banned their video and prosecuted those who sold t-shirts or put up posters of the band. Russian prosecutors even considered bringing charges against eBay for allowing the shirts to be sold on the company's platform. And more comically, Russian officials even banned episodes of popular TV shows such as "South Park" or "The Simpsons."

The framers of our Constitution understood that it is human nature to attempt to use government power to censor those we disagree with. They had witnessed bloody wars fought over religious and political differences. Accordingly, they enacted the First Amendment, which stands decisively for the principle that the government cannot punish or exclude individuals based on their speech, association or religious exercise.

They recognized that government censorship is incompatible with human rights. They understood that rather than giving government bureaucrats the power to regulate speech, a free society required room for vigorous political debate and the expression of even ideas we find hateful, deeply offensive or extreme. 

There is also little evidence that government action to censor "extremist" speech works. To the contrary, Europe has long banned "extremist" speech, such as Holocaust denial. But this has only driven such speech further underground and created a martyr complex among the adherents of these ideas. Thus, the censorious urge is as counterproductive as it is contrary to civil liberties.

That's why it is deeply disappointing to see tech companies such as Facebook calling for global internet regulations and the establishment of transnational bodies tasked with determining what is "extreme." We should not trust governments, let alone international organizations, to decide what speech is acceptable and what speech is too "extreme." Instead, we should expect that reasoned debate in a free marketplace of ideas ultimately will prevail.

Extremism - whatever that may mean - may be a growing problem, but restricting speech is the truly extreme and inappropriate solution. The United States is right to resist the call to censor, even if it means standing alone.  

Daniel Ortner is an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation, which litigates nationwide to achieve court victories enforcing the Constitution's guarantee of individual liberty.

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