The First Amendment to the Constitution, the most important 44 words in that priceless and precious promise of liberty and freedom, does not guarantee civil, wise or even responsible speech. It guarantees free speech, however goofy, dumb or even irresponsible.
The American obsession with free speech often confounds friend and foe abroad, even those, like our British cousins, who should know better. The Europeans say they cherish free speech, and guarantee the expression of it, but what they mean is that their governments guarantee the free expression of government-approved speech. That’s a distinction with a definite difference.
This is relevant, as always, and important to keep in mind this week when the Trump administration declined to sign the “Christchurch Call,” designed to be a pledge, nonbinding at the moment, to “take action” against the spread of extremist views on the Internet. It’s the brainchild of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand in the wake of the deadly shootings in Christchurch by a deranged, or more likely evil, young man who published a long, rambling, barely coherent white-supremacist diatribe about why he was doing it. He live-streamed the gruesome spectacle on Facebook.
Miss Ardern and President Emmanuel Macron of France convened a summit in Paris, attended by prime ministers Theresa May of Britain, Scott Morrison of Australia and Justin Trudeau of Canada, to do something about all the free speech floating on the air, causing violent mischief around the world. Representatives of Twitter, Facebook and Twitter signed up, too. (Nobody turns down a trip to Paris to make mischief.)
“The Christchurch Call to action has a simple purpose,” says Miss Ardern. “Tech companies have both enormous power and enormous responsibilities. And so do governments. We each have a role to play in protecting an open, free and secure Internet,” and, here comes the but, “this should never be used as a justification for leaving extremism and terrorism unchecked.”
Everybody wants extremism and terrorism to be checked, but it’s a fundamental American instinct to be careful with how that is done. How will “extremism” be defined, and more important, who will define it? The Christchurch Call, well-intentioned as it may be, carries with it risks of unintended consequences. It promises a commitment to “strengthening the resilence and inclusiveness of our societies,” but it encourages Facebook and YouTube to eliminate content that gives the overly sensitive folk heartburn even if it is not hate speech.
Facebook recently proposed to create “a global oversight board,” a panel of “experts” to decide what content should be removed, and when. Facebook doesn’t say who would anoint and appoint these “experts,” but it’s not difficult to imagine who they would be. You can bet they would arrive all broke out in San Francisco values. Prime Minister Ardern says the Christchurch Call “is not about regulation,” and the focus “is very much on violent extremism.” The pledge will not limit or curtail freedom of expression, of course, and everyone will be free to express as much government-sanitized speech as they want.
If Miss Ardern and her Christchurch callers want to reassure the skeptics they should cast the pledge as something like this: “Our governments shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” That would reassure everyone, and the ghost of James Madison would surely not haunt Miss Ardern and her fellows for stealing his sentiments.
Guarding against the encroachment of good intentions is a full-time job. We all know where the road paved with good intentions leads. The Trump administration declined to sign the Christchurch Call, and we should all be grateful he did, but he can expect practiced outrage from the usual quarters, although the United States never signs such things.
Barack Obama, to his credit, declined to become a party to a United Nations resolution condemning “the glorification of the Nazis.” Mr. Obama was no fan of der fuehrer, but America’s robust and unequivocal free speech tradition renders it impossible for the president or his administration to sign anything that encourages censorship, however disguised.
There’s no shortage of advocates nibbling away at free speech, particularly in academia. Prof. Tim Wu at Columbia University Law School dissents from the White House view that the best weapon against bad speech is more good speech, arguing that in the modern era of social media even good speech is drowned by uncontrolled speech on the likes of Facebook and YouTube. Prof. James Grimmelmann of Cornell Law School dissents from the dissent: “The government should not be in the business of encouraging [such companies] to do more than they legally are required to do.”
James Madison put the First Amendment in language that even lawyers could understand. “Free” means free, and may it be forever thus.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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