We must constantly be on guard against censorship

As expected, the aftermath of the Muslim terrorist massacre in Paris has brought out not only defiance but a new debate over censorship. That debate reminds us why we must be vigilant and constantly fighting against censorship. We saw this in a letter to the editor last week.

The author makes the absurd claim that the Bill of Rights “identifies the possible limitations of those ideas.” Perhaps she is referring to Supreme Court decisions, if we are being charitable. But there is clearly nothing in the Constitution that enables government to restrict free speech. The Constitution does the opposite – it prohibits government from restricting speech (before or after the fact) because the Founders assumed free speech was a fundamental human right that government could neither grant or deny.

The author is correct that free speech “cannot work in a vacuum.” There are limits on speech that are socially enforced, and parents restrict what their children say – whether the speech is crass, insulting, rude or simply out of turn. (“Mommy and daddy are talking.”) There are laws on the books that allow damages from slander and libel, because of the harm false accusations can cause to someone’s family, career and reputation. But socially enforced speech codes, rules provided by parents and awards granted in a civil lawsuit are a completely different animal than censorship enforced by the power of the state.

By all means, we should encourage people to speak responsibly and with care to the feelings of others. But one thing cannot be tolerated, and that is violent suppression of speech by terrorists. There can be no rational discussion of appropriate or responsible speech with someone who is holding a rifle, a bomb or a sword. The terrorists need to put down their weapons or they need to die. Once the terrorists are in the ground where they belong, then we can have that rational discussion.

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