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Free speech in a fishbowl

In a world where everyone has access instantly to what is said on the other side of the planet, free speech has to reckon with millions of new 'free listeners'

By Editor / October 12, 2010

The media surround Dr. K. A. Paul outside of the Dove World Outreach Center following a news conference by pastor Terry Jones in Gainesville, Fla., on Sept. 10 at which Rev. Jones abandoned his threat to burn the Koran.

Scott Audette/Reuters

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Free speech was swell when it was just a few early Americans talking amongst themselves, their flintlocks leaning in the corner as they debated the fine points of the Federalist Papers. Other than the threat of being hauled up for sedition, those were the days. Then along came Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Larry Flint, the ACLU, 24-hour cable, and the Circus Maximus of the Internet. Not only can anybody say and show anything – and you know what I mean by anything – but people all over the world are tuning in.

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Free listening is the flip side of free speech. It is about 200 years younger than the First Amendment. I’d date its birth to 1987, when Moscow stopped jamming the Voice of America and other external broadcasters. Free societies don’t jam. They let the marketplace of ideas decide, as John Stuart Mill said they should. They trust their people, even when they say and do jerky things. North Korea, China, Iran, and a few other countries still don’t allow unfettered
access to the Internet, but most of the world is clicking, watching, and listening.

A couple of decades ago, when the Internet was only a clunky tool for swapping scientific information, the four news networks – ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN (Fox News was a latecomer, born in 1996) – could simply ignore the likes of the Rev. Terry Jones or other incendiary characters. Even if he had lit his bonfire, no one in Khandahar or Kashmir would have seen it. An insulting cartoon of Muhammad in a Dutch newspaper might have prompted outcry in Holland and could have sparked demonstrations abroad, but passions would have cooled with time and distance.

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