Ben-Shachar Misreads Liberty


Tal Ben-Shachar's editorial, "Freedom to Limit Freedom" (Nov. 29), relies on a multitude of factual misrepresentations and dubious assertions in its advocacy of restrictions on freedom of speech. Ben-Shachar argues that voices that "exploit" free speech to argue against the predominant values of a "free" society should be silenced. Free speech, however, is not a means but an end in itself.

The First Amendment recognizes that a democracy cannot dictate what is the truth. Attempts to do so often bring about the exact opposite (witness the rise of neo-Nazis in Germany, despite stringent censorship). If Ben-Shachar considered the implications of his argument, he would realize that it could have been used to silence the opponents of slavery in the 19th century and campaigners for civil rights in the 20th century. Those individuals who disagree with the "core values" of a society are in fact those most in need of the protections of the First Amendment. If the protections of free speech only apply to non-controversial points of view, free speech is utterly meaningless.

Indeed, the examples cited by Ben-Shachar if anything contradict his argument. Fore example, he claims that the Oklahoma bombing of last spring was the end result of the "continuous denigration of government officials." In Ben-Shachar's ideal word, political criticism apparently is not protected speech. Explosives and a deranged disregard for human life--and not words--destroyed the federal building.

The alleged bomber, Timothy McVeigh, was reportedly motivated by the mishandling of the federal government assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. If Ben-Shachar is to eliminate the possibility of speech ever causing violence, all sources of news therefore should have been censored, even before anyone was aware of how the siege would end. It is difficult to see how any communication at all could take place in Ben-Shachar's regime, as someone somewhere might take some element of some speech as a reason to engage in some act of violence. If this is Ben-Shachar's utopia, it is utterly terrifying.

It's true that free speech may be used in a manner which may ultimately lead to harm to society. But the speech and harm are distinct. American democracy's shining beacon has been the tolerance of views that many consider abhorrent and dangerous. Communists may freely run for office. Nazis may march through a city with a large Jewish population. The Klan may advocate the repeal of civil rights statutes. Anything else is thought control. At the heart of the First Amendment is the belief that, except in the rare circumstances when speech will demonstrably cause immediate physical harm, it is simply impossible to draw a line.


In summary, Ben-Shachar is apparently terrified that speech will be used to "incite the public to violent measures against the government." But in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, "every idea is an incitement." Only a person with delusions of godhood would claim to be able to determine what speech must be suppressed, and what "diverse voices" will, magnaminously, be tolerated. --Jol Silversmith '94