TOS Blog: Daily Commentary from an Objectivist Perspective

LA Times Writer Calls for End of First Amendment

How long can liberty in America last when newspapers publish calls for censorship?

Today, the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed by Sarah Chayes, former special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, condemning the film widely blamed for the current wave of Islamist violence across much of the Muslim world, and arguing that the film does not warrant First Amendment protection.

Never mind, for a moment, the fact that Islamists attacked U.S. embassies and murdered a U.S. diplomat on the most recent 9/11, and that these Islamists would have seized any pretext to carry out their murderous rampages.

If and to the degree that these particular Islamists, on this particular occasion, lashed out in violence because an amateurish, then-obscure film hurt their feelings, that in no way alters the film’s proper status as protected speech under the First Amendment.

Chayes agrees with law professor Anthony Lewis: “If the result is violence, and that violence was intended” (or expected), then a work does not fall under First Amendment protection. But this “standard” obliterates the distinction between the intentional incitement of violence and mere criticism to which the targets of the criticism may react irrationally with violent rage.

To take an analogy from the civil rights era, it is the difference between inciting a mob to lynch a black man by calling for that action—clearly unprotected “speech”—and offering an impassioned speech against racism even if racists react violently to that speech.

Regardless of the content or the quality of the speech in question, speech as such does not cause, and is not responsible for, the irrational violence of others.

What happens if the censors win and the government restricts speech that might hurt the feelings of some group that might then react violently? If the censors win, then, in order to muzzle its critics, all any group need do is threaten to act violently if criticized.

Chayes’s “standard” calls for the death of the First Amendment—and thus the end of the American republic. Shame on her.

Like this post? Join our mailing list to receive our weekly digest. And for in-depth commentary from an Objectivist perspective, subscribe to our quarterly journal, The Objective Standard.


Creative Commons Image: Photo © 2011 J. Ronald Lee

Posted in: Individual Rights and Law

Comments are welcome so long as they are civil.
  • Aquinas Christian Heard

    I like the analogy with the lynch mob. I would go a little further and say Sarah Chayes’ position is not merely shameful but evil. Without the First Amendment, the spread of Objectivism doesn’t have a chance.

  • Steven Stoddard

    Killing the First Amendment is not a good idea, whether it is done by foreign powers, or by suicidal U.S. government action.

  • Anonymous

    I believe that elements of this post comes from a skewed reading of Chayes’ article.

    While imminence and expected-result (or likelihood) are tests discussed by Chayes, she isn’t resting her case solely on these; she’s also resting her case on intentionality. Lewis, as quoted here by Chayes, didn’t use “expected.” He used only “intended.” Chayes’ Lewis quote is: “If the result is violence, and that violence was intended, then it meets the standard.” In this post, the seeming-quote, as morphed, is partly accurate, partly paraphrased, and had “(expected)” gratuitously inserted. The rest of the post depends completely on the insertion of “(expected).” Obviously, if “intended” and “expected” are conflated, the result would be disastrous: the offended party would only have to riot in order to shut down their critics from that point forward. (BTW, this already happens.)

    Chayes attempts to indict the movie makers by the claim that another Coptic Christian sent a link to the movie to reporters in the U.S. and Egypt (which reporters?). Even if this publicity effort was intended to incite violence (which Chayes doesn’t attempt to prove), it still wouldn’t prove anything about the makers of the movie, who’s speech Chayes clearly wants to restrict — this, I believe, is the intent of the article. She’s making an unsupported accusation. Also, intending to be provocative doesn’t equate to intending to incite violence. In any case, I don’t see that she’s attempting to advocate for the legal substitution of “expected-result” for “intended-result.” What Chayes really did though, is an unsupported attempt to put blame on the movie makers.

    Incitement is a critical issue and needs to be clearly defined — as does the concept of threats of violence. IMO, both the intent to create violence and the intent to control behavior via threats of violence are both uses of the initiation of force. Also, there’s a real question in my mind about just how relevant the tests of imminence and likelihood really are. If someone is calling for violence, does it fundamentally make a difference about how imminent and likely the violence now is? If any Objectivist legal expert(s) has taken up these matters, I’ve not seen the results.

    No matter how incitement is defined, I think it’s important to remember that there’s always the chance that someone could get hurt because of the irrationality of some crazy person or fool. In general, if the behavior of irrational people is used as an excuse to curtail rights, we won’t have any rights at all; unfortunately, this is what’s happening in the U.S.

    Anyway, what pisses me off the most about this affair is that the movie has been made the issue instead of the violation of our freedom of speech perpetrated by Islamic thugs.

    One final point in this already overly long comment. There are reports that Egypt has ordered the arrest of 8 people, including one American citizen and, I presume, others in the U.S. legally and that convictions could mean the death penalty. If this is true, Egypt has left no doubt that it’s an Islamist nation. This leaves the U.S. no option but to retaliate in some way. I suggest starting with pulling all diplomatic personnel out of the country, throwing out all Egyptian diplomatic personnel in the U.S., and cutting off all aid.

  • Christine Armstrong

    I think it’s time that we take control of the 4th Estate! NO LONGER can any STUPID BOOB call him/her self a journalist w/o passing strigent tests as to their qualifications for such title! Proper credentialing should be displayed w/any articles/stories/books/and or other forms of publications, for which monetary compensation is given, so that people can have something to judge the information on before they waste their time reading something that is just not worth reading and giving credence to!

  • Martin Lundqvist

    “In general, if the behavior of irrational people is used as an excuse to curtail rights, we won’t have any rights at all…”
    I think this is the essential point here.

  • Martin Lundqvist

    Credentials are useless, and should never be relied upon when judging someone. One only has to read what she writes to come to definite conclusions in that regard.

  • Stephanie Bond

    Ms. Chaye likely wrote this piece in the hopes of attracting a phone call or Tweet from B.O. himself. It’s ironic that after decades of fighting for civil liberties, the Left is now ready to shut them down.