A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
by Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D.
In his famous essay, "On Liberty," John Stuart Mill made plain the danger of censoring the opinions of others. "The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion," he said, "is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."
In our democracy, freedom of speech also means the right of Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan, and other hate groups to express their views. The point is not that these groups speak the truth and are therefore entitled to speak openly. Rather, we tolerate the expression of these views because the danger of silencing the opinions of others with whom society or government disagrees means that any view -- no matter how credible -- may end up on the chopping block.
As Mill also recognized, the danger of being cocksure of oneself is that one takes no pains to subject one's views to the court of public opinion. Witness the recent remarks of Donald Rumsfeld in which he likens those who disagree with the Bush administration's stand on the Iraq war to Nazi supporters. And witness the President's own recent accusation that a media that questions his Iraq policy is aiding the terrorists -- and thus by implication is on their side.
In a true democracy, the formidable power of the state should be checked by an almost absolute right of political free speech -- so long, said Mill, as the speech in question does not place anyone in imminent danger.
It is therefore ironic that some of the most ardent opponents of the Bush administration have elected to place themselves on the very side of the government regime they so ardently oppose. I am referring here to Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi and Charlie Rangel.
In addressing the United Nations, Hugo Chavez made no bones about his scorn for the President of the United States when he referred to him as "The Devil." No term of endearment, this gesture of ill-will is likely to prove abundantly less "incendiary" and dangerous than the President's own demonizing denouncement of entire nations as members of "The Axis of Evil." Just how incendiary the President's remark is perceived to be obviously depends on what side of the axis you are on. The point is not that this damning rating of nations such as Iraq, Iran, and North Korea (and more pointedly, of their leaders) was degrading, provocative, and foolish -- it was all that. The point is rather that ours is supposed to be a nation that embraces freedom of speech, and if a President is entitled to indiscretions without censor, then, lest we face the fact that we live under a totalitarian regime, so too are others so entitled.
About Chavez's remark, Nancy Pelosi stated, "Hugo Chavez abused the privilege that he had, speaking at the United Nations"; and Charlie Rangel stated, "You do not come into my country, my congressional district, and you do not condemn my president." He told Chavez that he shouldn't "think that Americans do not feel offended when you offend our Chief of State."
For such "champions of democracy" to gloss over the distinction between indiscretion and offensiveness, on the one hand, and the right to free speech on the other, is not unlike a President who condemns the media for disagreeing with his war policy. The fact that Chavez's remark came in the form of a personal attack is irrelevant from the perspective of freedom of speech. In a democracy no federal government authority -- Democrat or Republican -- has the right to hold itself out as the arbiter of what etiquette freedom of speech must embrace. In the United States, there are civil courts that exist for such purposes. If Chavez or anyone else who rightfully has the bully pulpit wants to get up in front of a distinguished body of statesmen or a crowd at a rock concert and proclaim the President of the United States a devil, that is surely their prerogative. If the speaker demeans himself or his nation -- as Pelosi said of Chavez -- that is clearly the speaker's problem. It is the nation's problem only if this indiscretion is censored. From Mill's perspective, we are then prevented from "the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."
To be credible, Democrats like Pelosi and Rangel need to stand firm against a government that likens those who dissent to its policies to Nazis and terrorists. In order to do so, they need to stand firm for freedom of speech. The main issue was not that Chavez was right or wrong; discrete or indiscrete. The important point is that he was exercising free speech -- and they (all of us) should support the right to do so, even if this means recognizing the right of another (even a foreign leader such as Chavez) to call the President of the United States The Devil.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Elliot D. Cohen is a media ethicist and author of many books and articles on the media and other areas of applied ethics. He is the 2006 first-place recipient of the Project Censored Award for his Buzzflash article, Web of Deceit: How Internet Freedom Got the Federal Ax, and Why Corporate News Censored the Story.