Carol Forsloff — Many people in the United States echo their rights of free speech as secured by the Constitution. The Supreme Court, however, has on several occasions indicated that the right of freedom of speech is not absolute, especially when it puts people at peril.
One of those key decisions was Schenk vs the United States. During World War I, Charles Schenk voiced his opposition to the war by mailing pamphlets to American soldiers and was consequently charged with espionage. The Supreme Court upheld his conviction. Under what circumstances are the rights of free speech limited?
Justice Oliver Wendell wrote the opinion for the unanimous Supreme Court decision. He stated that under ordinary circumstances Schenk would have a right to express his opinion about the war, but freedom of speech depends on circumstances. “The most stringent protection of free speech,” Holmes wrote, “would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” Justice Holmes compared that circumstance to living in a nation at war. He went on to explain, “The question in every case is whether the words are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”
Presently the United States is being condemned for a YouTube video in which its producer vilifies Islam in inflammatory language. The video was independently made, and US officials have explained that America does not concur with the video content and that the country should not be attacked because a private citizen uploaded a video that mocks the Prophet Muhammad. A user called Sam Bacile uploaded the film on July 2. The film was dubbed in Arabic and was seen by TV networks in Egypt. After that, the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was burned down. The U.S. ambassador to Libya and three members of his staff were killed and riots broke out in other Middle Eastern and North African countries. YouTube consequently took down the video in what was described as a temporary measure, resulting from the content of the video. US officials, in the meantime, have condemned the retaliatory attacks but also the video, which is said to have inflamed the mobs to riot.
It is the concern of American officials that the situation in the Middle East has great volatility and that a video that mocks the Prophet Muhammad imperils US citizens and the nation’s relationships with countries in the region. Supreme Court decisions such as Schenk vs the United States are often cited as the foundation for restricting the rights of free speech when that free speech can be demonstrated as causing, or tending to cause, violence.