Harry Reid and Lindsey Graham yesterday both suggested that Congress take unspecified though formal action against the Koran-burning by Florida preacher Terry Jones, which triggered days of violence this week by angry Muslims in Afghanistan. Graham in particular — using the “but” that is the hallmark of all enemies of the First Amendment — said: “Free speech is a great idea, but we’re in a war.” He claimed that “during World War II, we had limits on what you could say if it would inspire the enemy” (I think he was thinking of World War I, when Woodrow Wilson succeeded in all but criminalizing war opposition, including passage of the dangerously broad Espionage Act: the statute Dianne Feinstein and others now want to exploit to prosecute WikiLeaks).
There are several points worth highlighting about all of this. First, it demonstrates how many people purport to believe in free speech but don’t. The whole point of the First Amendment is that one is free to express the most marginalized, repellent, provocative and offensive ideas. Those are the views that are always targeted for suppression. Mainstream orthodoxies, harmless ideas, and inoffensive platitudes require no protection as they are not, by definition, vulnerable to censorship. But as has been repeatedly seen in history, ideas that are despised and marginalized are often proven right, while ideas that enjoy the status of orthodoxy prove to be deeply erroneous or even evil. That’s why no rational person trusts the state — or even themselves — to create lists of Prohibited Ideas. And those who endorse the notion that ideas they hate should be forcibly suppressed inevitably — and deservedly — will have their own ideas eventually targeted by the same repressive instruments.