The White House and Free Speech


It goes without saying that reporting, opinion, and satire are not occasions for retaliatory violence.

Yet at the January 12th daily White House press briefing, Press Secretary Josh Earnest repeated it no fewer than eight times.

Who can this bland truism of a sermon be meant for?  Westerners take it for granted.  Islamists reject it out of hand.  It simultaneously fails to reassure, persuade, or defend.

It was meant, instead, to threaten.  Each repetition was paired with a reason why news organizations might do well to consider self-censoring their reporting and their commentary.   A number of times, Earnest invoked the idea that printing potentially offensive material might endanger the lives of American service personnel serving overseas – a notion for which there is approximately zero evidence.  (One wonders whether or not the servicemen and women themselves were ever consulted about being used in this fashion.)

Earnest ominously suggested that newspapers might need to take into account their own calculations of the risks to themselves involved in reprinting cartoons or controversial material, that they or their reporters might be subject to violent attacks as a result:

The first thing is I think that there are any number of reasons that media organizations have made a decision not to reprint the cartoons.  In some cases, maybe they were concerned about their physical safety.  In other cases, they were exercising some judgment in a different way.  So we certainly would leave it to media organizations to make a decision like this.

He also proposed that considerations of taste, journalistic judgment, and ethics might come into play:

And, again, those decisions aren’t just driven by safety; they’re also driven by certain ethics and journalistic standards.  And these are complicated issues but ultimately ones that journalists should make.

There was a faint mention, prompted by insistent questioning, that a free press was something that our military is out there defending, but that only served to heighten the need for self-censorship in order to protect them.

And I think you could make the case, as I mentioned earlier, that a lot of men and women in uniform — not just from American soldiers, but French soldiers and British soldiers and others are fighting for that principle in a very real way.

In fact, given the opportunity in a question to say that American newspapers really should consider themselves safe, Earnest passed it up, in favor of another statement that journalists were just going to have to make that assessment themselves:

Q: Are you saying that based on your knowledge, the White House — you guys know a thing or two about security — that American media organizations shouldn’t be afraid of writing something or showing a cartoon that would offend jihadis because, hey, you, as the White House say, America is the place where you don’t have to be afraid of that because we have sufficient security here? …

A: What I’m saying is that individual news organizations have to assess that risk for themselves.

Earnest then went on to mention the risks journalists routinely take to bring stories to their readers – without mentioning that reporting on ISIS from Iraq entails, or should entail, slightly different security concerns from printing satirical cartoons in Paris or New York.

Put together, the logic of the briefing reads like satire itself:  No speech can justify violence like what we saw in Paris, but news organizations need to think about what they’re printing, the kinds of risks they’re taking printing it, since we really can’t protect them, and how they might endanger our servicemen who are fighting to protect their right to print this sort of thing.

Here’s what a robust defense of the spirit of the First Amendment would look like: “Americans – indeed all people – have the right to unfettered free speech, be it reporting, opinion, or satire.  It is not the job of this government to pass judgment on the content of that speech.  It is the job of this government to make sure that Americans can exercise that right without fear for their safety.”

We didn’t get that.

Instead, then-Secretary of State Clinton supported the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s (OIC) notorious UN Resolution 16/18.  That resolution would effectively criminalize criticism of Islam, encouraging countries to ban speech that serves as an “incitement to violence.”  While under Western law “incitement” means encouraging violence, Islamists interpret it to mean “offending to the point of provoking violence.” Such laws would surrender our free press to the Islamist mob.

The administration’s support for Resolution 16/18, and active cooperation in its development, lends a decidedly more sinister cast to its statements.  In this context, the repeated statements that nothing that gets printed can justify violence begins to seem a little less like an attempt to state a principle, and a little more like a Chicago politician’s traditional warning: nice little newspaper you got there, shame if anything happened to it.

How long will it be before we see Earnest making the case for Resolution 16/18 simultaneously on the patriotic grounds of protecting our troops, and as a preferable alternative to the violence that “irresponsible” speech invites?  We would then have the spectacle of a United States President using the threat of Islamist terror attacks to justify Islamist restrictions on a free press.

Even though, it goes without saying, such violence can’t be justified.

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