When Oliver Wendell Holmes created the metaphor of “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater,” the specific example that he had in mind was a socialist who was passing out literature encouraging young men to resist the draft for World War I. Today, there is much confusion about what that war was even about. And that is nowhere more true than in the United States. How was encouraging draft resistance “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater”? If anything, that’s shouting fire in a theater that is on fire. But at the time, I’m sure that Holmes thought the war was very serious business: the Central Powers posed an existential threat to us!
That’s the problem with government suppression of free speech. It is trivial to find examples that seem too extreme. And when people are afraid, clear political speech that the First Amendment should apply to becomes illegal. There’s a pretty clear distinction between “Kill the president” and “Don’t kill for the president.” Yet that distinction was lost on as great a mind as Holmes during the First World War. Of course, now most people would think that encouragement of draft resistance ought to be legal, just as most people think the Japanese deserved Fourth Amendment protections during the Second World War. We humans are great thinkers in retrospect.
In France, following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the government enacted a law that blocks websites that encourage “terrorist” activities. It’s a wonderful irony, right? After all the marches and speeches about the right to say anything you like, the government comes in and clamps down on websites that say things they don’t like. I get it: most of those websites are probably pretty vile. But it’s curious, nonetheless. The government will shut down an entire website just because one page offends them. And the decision is made unilaterally — apparently with no due process.
Of course, I find this greatly disturbing. Governments do not have a great history of oppressing just the “right kind” of people. Just recently, we found out that American “security” forces were spying on a local Black Lives Matter group that protested at the Mall of America. Sadly, as far as the government is concerned, there really isn’t much of a line between advocating the overthrow the US government and protesting against the official murder of minority groups. Even if the new French law is perfect right now, eventually it will be expanded as more and more minor things are defined as “encouraging terrorism.”
This also has personal resonance. Let’s assume that right now the law is limited to people inciting others to acts of terrorism. I doubt it is, but let’s assume that. The same logic that allows the government to shutdown that kind of behavior applies to my writing an article defending those people’s rights. It could be called support for terrorism. And though I don’t generally accept slippery slope arguments, the government does tend to broaden such programs — especially when there is little to no oversight.
Glenn Greenwald provided a great overview of what’s happening, What’s Scarier: Terrorism, or Governments Blocking Websites in its Name? He gave the details about the French law as well as laws and proposed laws in other “enlightened” countries. He pointed out how tyrannical governments use the same excuses to block free speech with a recent headline, “China Tells Seoul Messaging Apps Blocked to Curb Terrorists.”
You see: there are always terrorists! That’s one of the big problems with all this. At this point, I’m not even sure what terrorists are other than violent groups that we don’t like. Greenwald put it well:
I have to admit to being especially angry about this stuff for an odd reason. I am so sick of people — great and small, near and far — freaking out about something that is happening; doing something stupid about it; and then looking back and saying, “I guess I overreacted. Oh well!” My whole life is a history of overreacting to things. Over time, I’ve gain what I think is a little wisdom. When I hear a news report about some outrageous thing, my thought is, “I’ll bet when I learn more, I’ll find out that it isn’t what it seems.” That doesn’t mean that there aren’t still outrages — sometimes I’m more outraged the more I know. But I’m convinced that we humans are hardwired to have an addiction to outrage. And it is a very, very bad thing.