Why Eric Posner is wrong about free speech

Posner ends his article with a confusing complaint that the combination of liberal and conservative beliefs about free speech mean that the U.S. government could only request and not order Google to take the video off of YouTube — what he calls “the bizarre principle that U.S. foreign policy interests cannot justify any restrictions on free speech whatsoever. Instead, only the profit-maximizing interests of an American corporation can.”

What is “bizarre” about that? The First Amendment does not require Google to keep videos on its website. It limits the powers of government, not private enterprise. Giving government the power to censor YouTube when it feels “foreign policy interests” are at stake, however, would certainly lead to widespread censorship. For instance, it is in the U.S. government’s interest to have good relations with China. Does that mean it would have reason to demand the removal of video of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre? You bet it would. In fact, the Chinese government would likely demand such steps be taken if the U.S. government had that power.

There is much more in Posner’s article that is objectionable to advocates of free speech — more than can be covered in just one column. The underlying problem is Posner’s assumption that it is reasonable for Americans’ speech to be limited according to the preferences of people in other nations. Worse still, the people to whose opinion Posner would have Americans defer are those who react most violently to expression they don’t like. If we give those who are willing to be violent the censorship they demand, we only encourage more violence over other issues and create incentives for other groups to become equally violent in order to have their own demands met. If you want more of a certain behavior, rewarding it is the best encouragement. In crafting his apologia for international censorship, it seems Professor Posner has forgotten this basic principle.

Robert Shibley is the senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).