Of all our civil rights, none is more precious to us than freedom of speech. It is part of our lexicon, a legacy of our English legal heritage. Phrases like "climb up on your soapbox" hark back to Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park where soapbox orators have harangued one and all with impunity since 1872.
Americans are uniquely unwilling to accept limitations to our freedom of speech. Restrictions the governments of European nations regularly impose on their press corps and citizens would never fly on this side of the Atlantic. But is absolute freedom of speech desirable in time of war? What happens when the right to speak freely conflicts with other, more basic rights (such as the right to be secure in our homes)? What happens when our speech imperils others?
During the Gulf War and the more recent fights in Iraq and Afghanistan, DOD granted unprecedented access to the media. Embedded reporters now eat, sleep, and travel with our troops. They go where the military goes, see what they see, and report back to us all the news they deem fit for our ears.
I say that, because we don't always get the full story. As I noted more extensively last week, for some inexplicable reason we hear far more about the disasters, vicissitudes, and horrors of war than about our successes. War news comes to us through an odd filter. Somehow the Medal of Honor winner, the fallen hero rarely if ever makes the front page. His exploits are not passed from father to son to inspire dreams of similar deeds in a generation still growing to adulthood.
When we win a battle in some dusty, Godforsaken border town the bolded headline is more likely to read, "10 Marines killed".
Yet when we make a mistake, even if the story is unsubstantiated, the tale is bruited far and wide, often with deadly consequences for those on the front lines:
May 10, 2005: Anti-American rioting broke out in Jalalabad, when local Islamic radicals became aware of a story in an American newsmagazine, accusing U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay prison, of flushing pages of the Koran down a toilet as a way to intimidate Afghan prisoners, and get them to reveal information about Taliban or al Qaeda operations. Jalalabad is a pro-Taliban town, and many locals are still upset that the Taliban is no longer running the country.
May 11, 2005: American and Afghan troops put down the rioting in Jalalabad (east of Kabul, near the Pakistani border), killing four protestors and wounding sixty others. Hundreds of protestors tried to attack American and Afghan troops, and did destroy some government, UN and NGO buildings. There were smaller demonstrations in other towns, as the pro-Taliban Afghans now have a cause to rally around. American officials say they are investigating the accusations about desecrating the Koran. American interrogators are not supposed to do this sort of thing, and the American reporters who came up with the story don't have much in the way of evidence.
May 12, 2005: Anti-American protests have spread to the capital, sparked by an unsubstantiated accusations by a U.S. newsmagazine. Newsweek magazine published a hearsay item about American interrogators at Guantanamo desecrating the Koran to intimidate suspected terrorists. The Taliban has been trying to spread similar stories, but have no credibility. American media has more clout, even if the story in question is basically a rumor. The pro-Taliban groups will push this story as much as they can, but the Taliban support is basically restricted to some Pushtun tribes in southern and eastern Afghanistan.
This is America. On our highways drivers of Volvos and small Japanese imports, seemingly devoid of the capacity for irony, sport bumper stickers proclaiming post-911 America a police state. We do not yield our right to speak lightly, nor should we.
But it is not unheard of for speech to be limited. So-called 'fighting words' that incite immediate violence have long been denied the protection of law. The rationale for this limitation is that when speech crosses a certain line, when it actively harms others, it ceases to be protected by our Constitution. If the entirely foreseeable effect of Newsweek's "speech" was not to incite violence, what was it?
Not so very long ago it was widely accepted that the government could limit information during time of war in the interest of national security, or with the express purpose of protecting our troops from harm. Nowadays that line of thinking has fallen into disfavor.
Journalists claim the absolute right to report anything and everything they see and hear, whether substantiated or not. Or more correctly, anything and everything they choose to report. Images of bodies falling from the burning World Trade Center were judged "too inflammatory" for our tender eyes. Images of Abu Ghuraib, though undoubtedly inflammatory in nature, were not - they were paraded before us 24/7. Videos of hostages, bound and pleading for their lives, filmed with the express purpose of pressuring us into submission and weakening our will to fight are not judged too "upsetting" to air, though money is paid to our enemies in exchange for this disturbing and dehumanizing footage.
Any positive news released by DOD is quickly dubbed "propaganda" by the media. But what name should we give to a constant barrage of negative news coverage that only presents one side of the story? And what do the networks who pay American dollars to our enemies for terrorist videos tell themselves? What is the management at Newsweek saying to itself this week, when good men have died because of an unsubstantiated story they published without considering the consequences?
They will, undoubtedly, tell themselves that this is not their fault. That in the service of truth, a few eggs must be broken. But it is certain that, were there government malfeasance involved, Newsweek would not be so quick to minimize the heartbreak of these men's families. We'd see in-depth cover stories of the anguished widows. Their grief would be exposed for our entertainment.
We would be manipulated to a suitable level of outrage.
I do not want to see the press muzzled, nor anyone hauled off to jail. But I cannot help but wonder: who was served by publication of this story? In their exercise of that freedom of speech we hold most dear, was there no thought for those who guarantee that right?
And have we grown so self-centered as a nation that we think only of our rights, and never of our responsibilities?
CWCID: Instapundit for the StrategyPage link.