Thursday, October 11, 2007

Tolerance Versus National Security Concerns in Relation to Freedom of Speech

Tolerance is one of the values taught by the First Amendment due to its counterintuitive nature. The First Amendment is paradoxical because it encompasses “a freedom to espouse no freedom, freedom for the speech we hate, a right to be wrong” (1). Yet it is the protection of speech that is hated by the majority of the people that is crucial to preserving democracy and a marketplace of ideas, while at the same time promoting tolerance for such extreme views. Tolerance in turn enables a diversity of views to be expressed. However, there may be a need to impose a limit on such tolerance if national security concerns are at issue, as is the case in allowing speakers like Ahmadinejad to express themselves. Is tolerance a sufficient justification for the overextension of freedom of speech protections to those who might pose a serious threat to America?

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the current President of Iran. Iran itself has been named as part of the “axis of evil” by President Bush due to its alleged desire to obtain nuclear weapons and its sponsoring of terrorist and insurgency groups (2). Ahmadinejad has been an extremely controversial leader and has supposedly made statements denying the Holocaust (3), but the most recent controversy surrounds his proclamation that Iran has no gay people (4). Yet it is not the content of his speech that is at issue. The question is whether those who provide a forum for his speech should be condemned as enablers of terrorism or defended as promoters of tolerance.

One of the major outlets for speech that is being denounced for tacitly supporting Ahmadinejad’s views by letting him express them is the media. Jonathon Feit criticizes the press for giving Ahmadinejad publicity but not examining his views critically. He scathingly condemns their silence: “Our country's greatest newswriters simultaneously put down their pens and said, ‘Well...can't seem to think of anything to counter that statement.’ No statistics, no cross-examination, nothing” (4). Journalists are supposed to investigate matters to ascertain the extent of their truthfulness, and in Feit’s view they have failed in this regard. Furthermore, he insinuates that the lack of denunciation by the media indicates their acceptance of his prejudice: “To be objective now, in the face of prejudice and hate, looks stupid. What's more, it smacks of complicity” (4). Although objective reporting is viewed as a positive trait that promotes a fair portrayal of all sides of controversial issues, at times subjectivity is necessary to avoid condoning heinous views. Passive observers who merely pass on the words of a leader hostile to the United States are worse than those who take no action because they are presenting his views uncritically to a wider audience.

Does all of this really matter, however? Ahmadinejad is not a United States citizen or even a resident alien, and technically cannot claim the First Amendment protections of the Constitution which are applied to citizens through the Fourteenth Amendment. There seemingly is no government involvement. Thus it should be easy to force the media to censor his speech, or at least to provide equal time for counterarguments to it.

But there are citizens and aliens who espouse views as inflammatory as his, and his case can therefore be considered as representative of letting speakers like him express themselves in public forums. Regardless of whether or not speakers are protected by the First Amendment, though, there would still be government involvement in dictating to the media whose speech should be allowed or banned. Banning the publishing of Ahmadinejad’s views in the press would constitute prior restraint and even mandating that equal time be given to opposing views would infringe on their right to editorial discretion.

The paramount issue, however, is whether national security concerns trump freedom of speech and tolerance. Security is an exception to the First Amendment protections on speech, after all. But consider the context in which Ahmadinejad’s speech is considered dangerous. He is a threat because of his anti-American views and support of terrorism. However, the war on terrorism can be construed as a perpetual war and in the light of that interpretation, the government can have an unlimited license to censor the publication of the views of any supposedly pro-terrorism speaker (2). This situation grants the government frighteningly unrestrained power to quash any sentiments it defines as “pro-terrorist.” No national security concern is great enough to endanger freedom of speech in this way.

While tolerating Ahmadinejad’s beliefs or the views of those like him can ironically be seen as a promotion of hate, upholding the values of the First Amendment has more than a civil libertarian value in these instances. The irony that America will allow him its freedom of speech while he denies that same right to his own people gives America the higher moral ground in world opinion. Iran’s people may tire of his oppressive fundamentalist regime and look to America for guidance instead, voiding any national security concerns in the first place.


(1) (1) Helle, Steven. “Prior Restraint in the Supreme Court.” Journalism 199 text, pg.49.

(2) (2)“Axis of Evil.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 11 Oct 2007. <>.

(3) (3)“Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 11 Oct 2007. < >.

(4) (4)Feit, Jonathon. “Should There be Limits to ‘Diversity’ of Speech?” Advertising Age. 11 Oct 2007. .


Cindy Alkass said...

Tolerance is one of the values allowed by the freedom of expression. In cases of national security being at issue, then it may be appropriate to limit some speech. However, in the case of the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaking at Columbia University, should be allowed to get news coverage by journalists. Even though our president has labeled his country as one of the axis of evil, it may be his policies that are promoting terrorism not his speech on how many gays there are in Iran. I do agree with your point on what journalists who covered this story wrote about. When I read about this in the Tribune and online, I found that all the articles were emphasizing his narrow minded speech, but I did not see any counter evidence against his ridiculous claims. As journalists, there should have been some counterexamples and facts, not just awe stricken writing that merely publicized his comments. In the link that I posted, there is a journalist that actually has something to say about gay people in the middle east and he presents his argument with facts. Other journalists should look to him as an example.

Zac said...

I disagree with your point that "at times subjectivity is necessary [by news writers] to avoid condoning heinous views"
If news writers are going to be subjective at all, then they must be constantly be subjective, and if they are going to be objective at all, then they must be constantly objective. Since most news outlets claim objectivity, I certainly do not think we should complain about them being objective in this case.

I could also argue that Ahmadinejad’s speech provides its own counterargument when presented to Americans, since it is so foolish, so no counter viewpoints were necessary.