Defending the First Amendment in the 21st Century

By guest blogger HAROLD FURCHTGOTT-ROTH, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission.

On September 11 and the following days, violent mobs attacked Americans and American property in Cairo, Benghazi, and cities throughout the Middle East.  Americans were murdered.  Embassies were ransacked.  Americans in the region, and even here at home, were threatened.

Many innocent victims have fallen in the path of recent violence; the First Amendment should not be among them.  Make no mistake: The violence around the world is aimed not at our country as an economic power, but at America as the champion of free speech.  Make America cower in fear, make us seek to silence unpopular voices, make us censor speech, and the First Amendment is not only destroyed.  So too is America.

America was founded not to allow mobs to destroy everything in their path, but for the opposite effect.  America is the triumph of the individual over the government, and with it the triumph of individual views, individual speech, and even repugnant individual views.  In America, we are protected from mob rule.  Those who truly hate America seek to destroy that triumph of the individual.  To see those who would destroy America, simply look at the mobs on television.

The motivations for each member of a violent mob need not be the same.  Some individuals may have a long-standing hatred of America.  Others may have been stirred to violence by an incendiary speech.  In the demonology of anti-American violence, the date September 11 is an unlikely coincidence.

But we in America have been repeatedly told a different story for the cause of violence against us.  We are told that the violence was sparked not by general anti-Americanism but by one video, supposedly made in America, and posted on one website.  The purportedly offending video was not produced by our government or placed on a government website.  So we are told, and perhaps even expected to believe, that a single video was the flame that ignited millions of people to protest, sometimes violently, against the United States.  The very story is an offense not merely to common sense but to the First Amendment.

The facts don’t support the story.  The Internet has more than 600 million websites, or about one for every 10 people in the world.  YouTube alone, the site of the allegedly offensive video, has more than 100 million videos.  For nearly 20 years, the Internet has made available more than enough content to offend just about anyone.  Yet over the same period, even the most virulently anti-American groups have not rationalized violence against America based solely on the content of a specific website.  Not until now.

Also troubling is the response of our government.  A clever government would not be ensnared in debates over the contents of documents or the views of individuals.  But rather than steer clear of judgments that impinge the First Amendment, our government has, likely unintentionally, fallen into a trap of taking positions that at best are troubling for the First Amendment.

For example, our embassies and even the State Department have issued statements that place our government in the awkward position of having opinions about the content of videos and even the intent of individuals.  Before the initial attack on September 11, the Cairo embassy issued the following statement: “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings….”  The statement begs the questions of “Which efforts” and “Which individuals?”  The answers to these questions are not positions that our federal government should be taking.

Two days later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did little better when she stated: “To us, to me personally, this video is disgusting and reprehensible.  It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose to denigrate a great religion and provoke rage.  But as we said yesterday, there is no justification – none at all – for responding to this video with violence.”

First, Secretary Clinton appears to conclude that the video was in fact the cause of the violence.  Are we really to believe that but for that video, no violence would have occurred, no Americans would have been murdered, and peace would prevail in the world?

Second, while she is careful to state that it is her personal view that the video is “disgusting and reprehensible,” Secretary Clinton finds it difficult to separate her personal views from the views of the Office of the Secretary of State, an office that now appears to have views about the content of at least one video.

Perhaps even more troubling is the slippery slope the government places itself on when it comments on the content of publications, whether videos, books, magazines, newspapers, or Internet sites.  Even if the First Amendment permitted such governmental review and judgment – which it does not – does our government want to be in the position of having views about videos?

Not all offensive videos are low-budget and of poor quality.  The 1915 Hollywood film “Birth of a Nation” is repugnant in many ways.  It is commercially available on the Internet.  Does our government have a view about this movie, or any of the other of hundreds of millions of videos on the Web? 

Rather than proudly trumpet the First Amendment, the beacon of hope around the world for countless downtrodden people, including those who cannot practice religion at home, Secretary Clinton seems mildly apologetic about it: “I know it is hard for some people to understand why the United States cannot or does not just prevent these kinds of reprehensible videos from ever seeing the light of day.”

Yet people around the world fully understand why the United States does not “prevent these kind of reprehensible videos.”  There is no mystery.  The answer is not technology.  The answer is the First Amendment, at the core of our national values.  When the day comes that America submits to mob rule and begins censoring speech, America will have been destroyed.  And with it, the hopes and aspiration of people around the world who yearn for nothing more than the protection of the First Amendment, rights that are present nowhere else in the world.

In recent days, anti-American riots have continued around the world, purportedly aimed at one video.  International figures, even some considered “allies” of the United States, have asked us to prosecute those involved in the video.  President Morsi of Egypt is one of those leaders.  The head of Hezbollah in Lebanon has asked for continued protests against the United States over the video.

Amazingly, practically every American has seen images of a man, purported the producer of the offending video, embalmed in clothes and in police custody.  News reports tell of government officials looking into the details of the offending video.  Is this possible under the First Amendment?

One might expect ordinary Americans to stand up in outrage to the demands of foreign mobs to dictate censorship in America.  The First Amendment is under attack not from home but from abroad. 

In 1952, after being interrogated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, one of the most powerful plays in the American canon.  It tells the story of individuals standing up to mobs and associated intimidation. 

But the reaction today is largely silence.  Many Americans join the mob.  Government officials denounce the video.  Law enforcement officials interrogate people associated with the video.  Media accounts rarely comment on the rights of individuals.

It is not merely the American media that have been silent.  The voices of America’s political leadership have provided no full-throated defense of the First Amendment.  We should not apologize for it.  We should not shrink from it.  What distinguishes America and what makes us the envy of the rest of the world is the First Amendment.  We should be proud of it.  When our loyal and dedicated government servants are murdered abroad, and murdered purportedly for America’s First Amendment, we should at least mention the liberties they helped protect.

President Lincoln in 1863 noted that the Civil War was a test of “whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”  At the time, he was speaking of the proposition that all men were created equal.  Today, he might speak of whether a nation conceived and dedicated to the First Amendment can long endure.  We are engaged in that war now.  And we are not yet winning.


Mr. Furchtgott-Roth can be reached at  The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not necessarily of The Media Institute’s Board, contributors, or advisory councils.