The Freedom Of WikiSpeech

I've had a lot of trouble wrapping my mind around the whole WikiLeaks affair. My first instinct was conservative, to say the least, and perhaps even jingoistic. I agreed with the sentiment that WikiLeaks, and its founder Julian Assange, was directly attacking the U.S. I hadn't felt this way about the previous WikiLeaks revelations, but something about this recent information dump struck me differently. In the past, the revelations had always been about the wars the U.S. is fighting abroad. I have some complicated views on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I won't get into them here. But regardless of whether you are in favor of continuing the fighting abroad or withdrawing all of our troops, I think we can all agree that war is the most dire situation in which a country can find itself. It's not a decision to be made lightly, or ignorantly. That is why I was supportive of previous WikiLeaks actions. Americans should know the truth about the wars we are fighting, and that means the entire truth.

[Image credit: Justin Kern]

I'm not ignorant to the realities of how this information might endanger our troops and the informants who are helping us. I think they should be afforded some protection. But I also think that in some cases, if the truth is going to inflame our enemies and put our troops into more danger, perhaps it is the reality that the information has revealed that is to blame, and not the release of the information itself. In other words, if we're doing something so horrible that we don't want anyone to know about it, perhaps it's something we shouldn't have been doing in the first place. Revealing that horror to the world isn't the problem, it's the horrible act itself.

This latest document dump still had me questioning some of my core beliefs. War is one thing, but diplomacy is another thing entirely. I would like to think that our diplomats and embassies abroad are working in the best interest of the American people, and all people worldwide. I definitely think that there should be some sort of oversight, and plenty of transparency, so that we can be sure that the things we say and do behind closed doors match the things we voted for behind closed curtains.

But I also know that diplomacy can be like a game, and subterfuge and secrecy are as much a part of this game as pomp and circumstance. Sometimes, we have to be nice to someone's face while sneering behind their backs. This is true with our closest allies or staunchest enemies. This isn't a lie, this is etiquette. We have to work with other countries, other leaders, to move towards a better world. Sometimes that means kowtowing to unsavory characters.

I also think there are leaders who may be more open-minded than the collective world news media portrays the general populace of the countries they lead. Those leaders should be free to say and do unpopular things behind closed doors, so long as they are working towards greater peace and freedom from harm for their people. If King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia wants to take a more liberal stance towards Israel and democracy in the Middle East than popular sentiment in his country might allow, he should feel comfortable having conversations in private with American diplomats, without worrying that those conversations will be made public in a giant information dump years later.

That said, there is no right guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States that I hold more dear than the first amendment. I am a true freedom of speech advocate, not just one of those people who wants freedom for the speech I consider decent and moral, and censorship when I think speech crosses the line. For me, freedom of speech comes down to one rule: don't hurt anyone. And I mean that literally. I'm speaking of physical harm, not emotional damage. I think it's very rare that speech can actually cause physical harm, and so I think that almost all speech should be allowed.

When can speech cause real, physical harm? If you yell "fire" in a crowded theater, and the resulting stampede causes injuries, that's physical harm. If you're standing before an enraged lynch mob, and you push that crowd over the line from unreasonable rage to actual physical violence, that's physical harm, though even in that case I'm hesitant to censure speech because I don't believe words alone can inspire people to violent acts.

Do you want to create a piece of art that offends my religious beliefs? Go right ahead. I won't pay to see it, but I won't stop you from creating it. Do you want to march down the street wearing white hoods and spouting hateful, racist rhetoric? I won't like what you have to say, but I'll fight to the death for your right to say it. Even better, I'll organize a counter-rally of clowns to highlight your stupidity. I think that the best way to combat verbal ignorance and intolerance is with education and experience, not censorship.

At its heart, the WikiLeaks issue is a free speech issue. In fact, I think it's wrong to even blame WikiLeaks themselves for causing these problems. WikiLeaks did not gather the documents, and they certainly did not write the problematic diplomatic cables. If there is blame to be laid upon this issue, it is upon the person who stole this information in the first place and passed it along. It is upon the lax security of the U.S. government, to allow this sort of information to fall into the wrong hands. If I can keep my parents from seeing photos of my wild weekend in Las Vegas on Facebook, certainly the U.S. government should be able to keep highly sensitive, behind-the-scenes documents a secret.

In fact, not only do I not blame WikiLeaks for this document dump, I actually admire the way they are handling it. They seem to be presenting the documents they control without editing or comment. They aren't editorializing what they have found, though it is clear that there is a political agenda behind the organization. They have passed along the same information to numerous news organizations, across a number of countries and cultures, so that no one group has control over the information.

I worry a great deal over the people who may be harmed by this leak, the people who may be physically hurt when their involvement in U.S. government affairs is revealed. If the person who leaked these documents is found and convicted in a court of law, I think there is an argument that this leak was treasonous, especially if that person is a soldier in our armed forces. But once the information is out there, it is best to let it flow freely and openly. You can't un-ring this bell, and even though it might have consequences for the way we interact with other countries in the future, and the way we gather and store the troves of information we collect, I don't blame WikiLeaks for the problem.

Of course our government's first reaction to the WikiLeaks dump was righteous indignation, even bombastic threats, but that has been tempered significantly in the past few days. As Secretary of State Clinton told reporters on Monday, as bad as it was to reveal our secret thoughts to other countries, the reaction from our allies was generally "You should hear what we say about you." Well, maybe we should. Maybe we'll look back on this time and realize that the truth wasn't so shocking or damaging. Our reaction to this issue can set the tone for the rest of the world as a model of how our country respects free speech.