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'

Scott Audette/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

To be sure, a high-profile event such as publication of Salman Rushdie’s book “The Satanic Verses” in 1988 so outraged hard-line Muslims that the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against the novelist. That was a clear sign that the West was no longer talking amongst itself. For better or worse, free speech now takes place in a global fishbowl. Whether you love the US Constitution is unnecessary. You can listen, even if you live where you dare not speak.

The fishbowl’s big minus is the potential inflaming of public opinion in parts of the world that don’t agree that anything can be said. The threat of far-off violence can chill public discourse. The big plus is that the rest of the world is now part of a global conversation that once only took place in the West. At the least, the rest of the world can help crowd-source and fact-check.

I used to be a foreign correspondent. I hope you will trust me when I say I was scrupulous about sourcing. I know that is an act of faith on your part, so thank you. The thing is, being truthful wasn’t absolutely necessary for journalists in the old days. If a quote was shaded, several sources conflated, or events embroidered – well, read Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop” or Ben Hecht’s “The Front Page” and you’ll know that my profession has had plenty of corner-cutters and fact-enhancers in the ranks. The Jayson Blair affair at The New York Times and the Jack Kelley scandal at USA Today are recent real-world examples.

But even a by-the-book journalist could take comfort in knowing that the oppressive government of the country he or she had managed to get into wasn’t likely to see the dispatch that reported on suppressed uprisings or secret purges. Those articles were only read back home.

Goodbye to all that. Seconds after an article is published on the Web, it is picked up by search engines. Everyone can see it – the misquoted villager, the government official irked at how his country was portrayed. Everyone can be a fact-checker. That’s good. It improves accuracy. It may also mean that a closed society that puts a Google watch on a reporter’s name may not let that reporter back into the country. Such are the trade-offs in the era of the global conversation.

Long live free speech. Here’s hoping free speakers don’t overdo it. Here’s hoping all the new free listeners get used to it.

John Yemma is the editor of
The Christian Science Montor.

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