The attack on the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo has ignited a number of conversations about free speech. Unfortunately most of the media people who talk about free speech either don't understand it or intentionally mislead their viewers.
In the U.S. the right for a publication to print satire of a public figure has been guaranteed. This means that any U.S. entity that chooses to mock the prophet Muhammad has the right to do so. The question becomes what is in good taste. Would Americans be as accepting of the free speech rights of Charlie Hebdo if they portrayed Jesus Christ as a pedophile or if they mocked the victims of the 9/11 attacks? While satirist are legally able to do these things it would probably be considered offensive by some Americans and any publication that chose to distribute such satire would likely be boycotted -- which is covered by the first amendment -- or threatened with violence -- which is typically not covered.
Clearly free speech is a basic tenant of American life and the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office offers a unique opportunity to discuss its value. Unfortunately many like Eric Bolling of Fox News decided to use this attack to push a biased political ideology. During a January 9th of 'The Five' Bolling went off the deep end of an already crowded pool. Bolling said "The people who at Brandeis University, Rutgers, Harvard, Berkeley, this year alone, who have killed free speech, who have actually had people disinvited to speeches .... align more closely with the terrorists in Paris than they do with the people from Charlie Hebdo."
The reality is that none of the speakers were actually disinvited as Bolling suggests. Some decided to pull out rather than face protesters while others gave their commencement speeches in spite of the uproar. Of course to some extent Fox News has only themselves to blame for the continued protests. Instead of covering every gathering of students that objects to a conservative hero's presence on campus, giving them a platform to be heard, Fox News could simply ignore them. It should also be noted that Fox News had no such issue with Notre Dame students protesting President Obama's commencement speech in 2009.
Regardless of the political affiliation of the speaker the argument that their statements or actions were out of step with the values of the University are the same.
More concerning however, is that Bolling doesn't recognize that protesting these speakers isn't actually a restriction on their freedom of speech in any way. Even if these speakers had actually been uninvited it still would not represent a restriction of free speech. Condoleezza Rice could have given the exact same speech at a sight off campus instead of being forced to endure the confines of a commencement speech. IMF head Christine Lagarde could have posted her commencement speech on social media sites for millions of people to read instead of limiting it to just Smith College graduates and their families. James Franco could have done a talk show tour sharing his thoughts instead of being subject to protesters at UCLA.
It could also be argued that by protesting, these students are actually increasing the speaker's free speech since various news outlets will cover the controversy and undoubtedly spread the speakers words to a new audience.
Of course if simply deciding not to allow an individual a bully pulpit is an attack on the freedom of speech then Fox News could be cited for impeding the president's rights when they chose not to air his speech regarding the impending executive action on immigration. They could also be sanctioned for allowing a guest to make statements of fact that were untrue since such errant assertions are not covered by the first amendment.
This misunderstanding or misuse of free speech isn't exclusive to conservative pundits. Bill Maher was also the target of protests over his comments on Muslims and the Islamic faith. In defending himself Bill took a page out of the Fox News play book and suggested that any person who attempts to get Rush Limbaugh removed from the airwaves is "just a baby who can't stand to live in a world where you here things that upset you." On this point Maher couldn't be more wrong.
Maher has made a career out of skewering people he disagrees with. He may not have caused celebrities like Lance Armstrong, Paula Deen and Tiger Woods to lose sponsors but he certainly participated in heightening the profile of their indiscretions making it more likely they would be a target of increased scrutiny which may or may not cost them money. Intentional or not the results could be the same.
The average citizen doesn't have an HBO show with a team of writers where they can finely craft and air their grievances. To make up for this lack of audience these people band together and exercise their own right to free speech by shining a light on people who they find offensive.
Even if this campaign against Rush Limbaugh succeeded, all it will have done is remove some of the monetary value of his speech. It will have done nothing to impact his constitutional right to continue to say the same ignorant or hateful things. Both Rush Limbaugh and his detractors who work to silence him are using the right to free speech. One or both of them may be acting like babies but that has no bearing on the constitutionality of their actions.
Through the years the courts have heard hours upon hours of arguments and decided numerous cases that have defined the right to free speech. At no point has the legal system, entrusted with interpreting the constitution, ever ruled that protesting a commencement speech, calling those with differing views terrorist or boycotting a political pundit infringes upon anyone's right to free speech. Luckily for these talking heads this faulty vigilantism is protected by the constitution regardless of what you might have heard on TV.