There are few places on earth where freedom of expression is more cherished than in the United States. But sometimes the dedication to that bedrock of democracy is put to excruciating tests, leaving us to wonder if too much freedom is such a good thing after all.
There are restrictions, of course, on the rights granted by the First Amendment. In interpreting the privileges prescribed by the Constitution, the courts over the centuries have set out parameters that prohibit incitement to riot or to actively advocate the overthrow of the Republic. Yelling fire in a crowded theater is not protected speech, and clearly there are such things as "fighting words" that trigger a predictable negative response from those at whom they are aimed.
Generally, however, the courts have zealously safeguarded the ability of Americans to speak their minds, even in what many consider extreme ways, such as flag burning. But that was before the Internet changed things forever.
Now the cause to maintain this precious right has been challenged by deadly protests in the Arab world, which at least partially seem to have resulted from a vicious and malicious assault on the Islamic religion by a shadowy group of American racist troublemakers who knew what they were doing.
By producing a horribly distorted and sick view of Mohammed -- in a video trailer reportedly of such poor quality it would not measure up to an elementary-school home movie project -- they have set off violence that claimed the lives of an American ambassador in Libya and three of his staff, not to mention attacks on U.S. embassies in a half dozen other places.
The 15-minute trailer for this alleged film made its way on to the Internet through YouTube, a subsidiary of Google, where radical elements including al-Qaida are using it as an excuse to further their anti-American aims. They're ensnaring hundreds of just plain devout Muslim folks in their efforts. Meanwhile, one of those involved in the project apparently has gone into hiding, showing he has at least a modicum of sense.
One important question: Have the offensive material's producers overstepped the First Amendment bounds, bringing about murder and mayhem? Can they be prosecuted under the circumstances for action that clearly strains the limits of accepted free speech? Constitutional scholars are certain to be pondering this in the months to come.
More importantly, what responsibility do the Googles and YouTubes of the information highway have in trying to prevent a clear misuse of their enterprises? Even if they institute new rules, how much impact might those have on limitless possibilities for mischief in this electronic nightmare of a world? They must walk a fine line, balancing legitimate speech and criticism with material that is clearly obnoxious, repugnant and intended to incite.
Google has the right to exclude any submission it believes does not meet its own standards of decency. While YouTube banned the video in several countries where it violated laws, that wasn't enough to prevent its exposure elsewhere. It turned down a U.S. request to do so generally. While the company cites a list of reasons for exclusion, fomenting a disturbance apparently isn't one of them.
The Internet has been both bad and good for free speech, breaking down governmental barriers and providing information that hundreds of millions might otherwise never receive. At the same time, it has turned the big U.S. companies that mainly operate on it into First Amendment arbiters with far more judgmental input on these matters than governments have.
Because of unlimited access to global communications, the genie is out of the bottle and can't be put back without doing violence to the basic concept of freedom. The cost of liberty often can be higher than we like, but it is a price we must pay. However, shouldn't it be tempered by common sense?
(Dan Thomasson is former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.)