Should There Be Limits to Free Speech?

Megyn Kelly of Fox News and radio host Richard Fowler had a heated debate about free speech sparked by a controversial “Draw the Prophet Mohammad” contest put on by Pam Gellar. Whew.

The whole point of Gellar’s contest was to thumb her nose at jihadists. Fowler said Gellar went too far. Kelly said Fowler was “fundamentally confused” about free speech.

But aren’t there limits to free speech? As Fowler mentioned, you can’t go into a theater and scream “Fire!” without legal repercussions. Why? Because it is tangibly harmful speech? Not really. It is only potentially harmful. And isn’t making fun of Mohammad a potentially harmful act if jihadists come and blow up a building or kill some people?

Kelly argues that such a comparison is apples to oranges. The whole conversation between Kelly and Fowler was riddled with these kinds of talking (past each other) points, though. Fowler tended to focus on the propriety or wisdom or necessity of making fun of Islam. Kelly tended to focus merely on the legality of making fun of Islam. And really, they were both right.

I have no problem upsetting jihadists for a purpose. But I think it unwise to upset anyone for no purpose. I am fine with poking at a hornets’ nest in the process of exterminating the hornets. But I have no desire to play hornets’ nest piñata just for the heck of it.

Free speech is protected for a reason: to protect important, but possibly unpleasant or unpopular, words. I feel about Gellar’s contest about the same way I feel about open carry demonstrations: they should be and are legal, but they may not be prudent. The only time I’m open carrying a rifle is when I plan on using it for some purpose.

There are those, like the fine people at OpenCarry.org, who will reply that “A Right Unexercised is a Right Lost.” Not necessarily. Sometimes the imprudent exercise of a right results in the corruption and atrophy of its purpose and the compromise of its legal standing. Think about it. Is the right to free speech really just about jihadi-baiting, pornography, profanity, corporate campaign donations, and picketing at veterans’ funerals? I hope not. It seems that the regular “exercise” of free speech has left its purpose rather unclear.

So instead of fighting for “free” speech, why don’t we work harder to attain true, good, and wise speech? Then, when someone tries to force us to be silent, we’ll have a good reason to fight.