The recent scandal involving YouTube star PewDiePie and the anti-Semitic content found in some of his videos proves once again that free speech is not truly free.
Keep in mind, I am in no way endorsing or condoning PewdiePie’s anti-Semitic remarks or the shock value he aims for in many of his videos. I will not be posting the particular video in question as I do not wish to support the channel in any way.
Free speech has long been limited, both legally and culturally, ever since America’s founding fathers framed the Constitution. The ever popular “You can’t yell fire in a theatre” quote attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a Supreme Court justice in 1919, is an example.
According to the First Amendment Center, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic …. The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger.”
Other forms of speech are not protected as well. Libel, defamation, child pornography, and inciting violent or criminal acts find no standing under the First Amendment, and rightly so. The “hate crimes/speech” laws various locales within the US possess also place certain limitations on types of speech, usually in accordance with the parameters of inciting violence or criminal acts.
But free speech does not mean that a person can say whatever they want without any consequences, but rather that they may do so without legal repercussions (excepting those cases previously mentioned).
The cultural backlash against certain expressions and exercises of speech are another non-judicial penalty which can be applied to individuals who violate societal norms or expectations.
PewDiePie’s YouTube video scandal is a perfect example of this and is merely one of the arguments for why free speech isn’t really free.
There has been no legal action taken against PewDiePie for his anti-Semitic videos. He is not going to jail. He is not being fined. He is not being forced to shut down his YouTube channel. He is not going on trial.
However, the public outcry and reaction have resulted in significant “punishment” being meted out to the “YouTumor.”
Disney canceled a business deal with the star, no doubt costing him a significant source of revenue. Nissan will no longer work with him. Google cut its ties with PewDiePie as well. These all happened as a result of the cultural backlash against an exercise of speech.
Again, free speech cannot truly be free if there must be a payment (consequences) to the exercise thereof.
The question arises then, is that such a bad thing?
Freedom of speech is a necessity for liberty to exist. Americans can typically say what they want, how they want, and whenever they want to. For those with a larger footprint, whose actions and words will affect many people, the freedom is more limited.
I disagree with racists, whether their skin is white, brown, black, or some other shade of humanity. Yet despite that, prohibiting them for expressing their opinions opens the door for sanctions against other types of speech. If one group is targeted for suppression, history shows us that others will follow.
If anti-Semitic comments become unprotected speech with legal penalties, who would be the next target?
Considering the significant anti-Muslim rhetoric coming from many right-wing groups, Islam could become a target. Once one religious group is hit, guess what will happen when control passes from one political party to another? Of course, this is just hypothetical. It isn’t as if Congress would pass legislation aiming at one specific people group and then another and another.
Speech should have consequences. For some, the consequence might be a person unfriending them on Facebook or Twitter. For others, they might lose a business deal or an election. Remember the Republican rape comment scandal a few years back? But these are not legal repercussions. The cultural and popular backlash against comments is a way for society to punish those who do not hold to its key values without enacting more significant punishments.
Still, mob rule is never the best choice for enforcing ideals. Ultimately, social pressure and repercussions will have significant consequences in the long run, but that pendulum can swing both ways.
Free speech is not completely free. It may be protected from most legal troubles by the First Amendment, but free speech is not protected from/by society.
So what are your thoughts on the current status of the First Amendment and free speech in the United States? Tell us what you think in the comments section below!
[Featured Image by John Lamparski/Getty Images]