Who will speak up for free speech?

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So Facebook is censoring images of Muhammad to satisfy Turkish authorities—a couple weeks after Zuckerberg was saying “Je suis Charlie” like the rest of the world.

At one level, it’s an easy decision to understand. If a U.S. court ordered that Facebook take something down, we’d expect it to comply. Apparently that’s what’s happening in Turkey, too. Multinational corporations need to respect the laws of the countries in which they operate, even when those laws seem, well, “foreign” to Americans.

But—you knew there was a “but” coming, right?—I see a rather serious problem in the way the US relates to the rest of the world in this decision.

Foreigners rarely understand the laws and customs of the U.S.   Even those you’d think would get it, like Brits. They speak the same language! But often if you talk to someone abroad, you’ll find they have no idea what laws, or life, are actually like. In fairness, American citizens are also often misinformed about U.S. law, too, in no small part because the media can’t be troubled to get it right most of the time.

But if it’s hard for French or Germans or Englishmen to understand U.S. law, how hard must it be for residents of Muslim countries, many of which have zero tradition of free speech or religious pluralism? There are places where you might be jailed for converting away from Islam, or beaten for criticizing the government, or be lynched for being Christian on a day when the mob was angry.

A lot of these countries also lack what we would call a “private sector.” Certainly there are little retail-level establishments that are private, but the big economic players are usually either state-owned or so thoroughly in bed with the government that they are essentially extensions of the regime. Not that there isn’t corruption in the U.S., because there is, but private business is still mostly privately controlled. The decision to censor Turkish Facebook, for instance, probably had nothing to do with the U.S. government at all.

But consider how all this looks to that hypothetical foreigner, who knows nothing of substance about U.S. law, and whose own experience does not include anything like free speech, and which teaches that big companies are extensions of the government. How does Facebook’s action look? What expectations does it create?

Well, it looks like the U.S.—a U.S. in which there isn’t much of a distinction between Facebook and The government—can censor images offensive to Muslims if it wants. Which in turn means that whenever it doesn’t, that failure must be intentional. Which makes any such images a deliberate insult from the U.S. to Muslims worldwide.

It also looks weak—and weakness invites attack. I’m not necessarily talking about physical violence (although weakness invites that, too), but about a more general contempt for the U.S. as a world power, for U.S. customs and laws as having any meaning, and also for international legal norms that tend to infringe on the rights of U.S. citizens.

It would be really nice if instead of constantly projecting weakness, we were able to robustly and fearlessly defend free speech, RKBA, religious pluralism, economic opportunity, decent treatment of women and minorities, an absence of corruption, and all the other things that make this a great nation outward—to be loud and proud, so to speak, of our traditions. The best people to do this, of course, are the President and Secretary of State, who are our face abroad. But when then can’t or won’t for whatever reason, it would also be nice if our famous brands and companies, like Facebook or the New York Times, would rouse themselves to make that defense—to accept a hit to the bottom line as the price of the very  principle.

Free speech is worth defending. Who will defend it?


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