Of all the messages the United States could send to the people of Iraq, the sorriest is this: If you say things we disapprove of, we'll shut you up.
That, regrettably, is precisely the message American administrator Paul Bremer has sent to Iraq by shutting down Al Hawza, an anti-American newspaper that frequently criticizes U.S. conduct in that country. According to the media liaison for the U.S.-administered government, the "false information" in the paper "was hurting stability."
"It was stirring up a lot of hate," he said. "It was making people think we were out to get them."
There is no reason to doubt that Al Hawza was having just that effect. Falsely blaming the Americans, as the Iraqi newspaper did, for an explosion that killed more than 50 Iraqi police recruits could well harm stability, create hate and lead the readers of the newspaper to conclusions that were not only wrong but harmful. Other inaccurate reports might well compound the harm.
But shutting down the newspaper will surely inflict even greater harm. In Iraq, we are engaged in a raging battle of ideas and ideology. Our claim that we are not only liberating the Iraqi people from a monstrous human-rights violator but bringing democratic self-rule to the Iraqi people is met daily by the cynical response that the American invasion was driven by a desire for oil and political conquest. The results of that battle are unclear and will remain so for months, if not years, to come.
In these circumstances, shutting down a newspaper that publishes material - even false material - that is critical of us sends precisely the wrong message. It is a message of fear that the truthful recitation of facts in other newspapers and on radio and television will fail to persuade the Iraqi public of what really happened. It is a message of weakness that we do not believe our ideas will prevail. Even more important, it is a message of inconsistency that for all our talk of freedom, we really don't mean it when we are the ones criticized.
To say this is not to deny the reality of the on-the- ground problems that a newspaper such as Al Hawza can cause or augment. The temptation to censor or even shut down such a newspaper must be great. But the cost of doing so is enormous. And the likelihood that we will succeed in suppressing the speech we fear is virtually nil. Speech banned in one newspaper will surely spread to another and then to the street itself.
There is probably no way to make speech seem more important than to ban it.
Must we then endure the sort of false speech that fills Al Hawza? If we're smart, we will. There is not the slightest doubt that any effort to shut down an American newspaper because it published what the government considered to be "false" stories would fail. That sort of censorship of the press runs headlong into the First Amendment. If that is so clear here, why not there?
In the heat of ongoing conflict in Iraq, it may be difficult to recall Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' plea that we must protect even the speech we hate. But we will pay dearly if we abandon our principles at the very time and in the very place that we need to display them with the greatest pride.
Floyd Abrams, a visiting professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, is a senior partner at Cahill, Gordon and Reindel who specializes in First Amendment law.
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