Nobody should be surprised that the dictatorial ruler of North Korea would want to censor a film that offended him, or even that he would feel entitled to break the law by threatening reprisals against the offenders. His alleged actions emulate those of hard-left feminists, radical Muslims, university administrators, and others who seek to prevent the publication or distribution of material they deem offensive.
I recall an incident several years ago when radical feminists fired bullets through the windows of a Harvard Square bookstore to protest its sale of Playboy Magazine. I also recall being physically threatened by a group called “Dykes on Bikes” – a feminist motorcycle gang – for providing legal representation of alleged pornographers.
Then there is radical Islamic censorship that has become far more deadly. When some radical Muslims were offended by Theo Van Gogh’s film “Submission,” which exposed Islam’s demeaning views toward women, Van Gogh was murdered in cold blood and his co-producer’s life threatened by a Fatwa. Salman Rushdie had to go into hiding when a Fatwa was issued against him and his book, “The Satanic Verses.” The Yale University Press, fearful of threats of violence, censored the actual cartoons depicting Mohammed from a book about that subject, following violent reaction to the publication of the cartoons in Scandinavia.
More recently, radical anti-Israel students tried to get SodaStream products banned from Harvard dining halls, because they were offended by the "micro-aggression" represented by the location of the company's factory beyond Israel’s Green Line. So instead of simply not drinking the product themselves, they tried to prevent everyone else from drinking it or even seeing its name!
Hard-left students, and even some on the soft left, have tried to ban sexist jokes and offensive classroom discussion on university campuses. Speech codes on many campuses are designed to prevent students from being offended by the comments of others.
The National Office of Amnesty International recently rescinded an invitation I had received from the Columbia University branch of the organization because they were offended by some of my views. And several universities, including Brandeis, rescinded offers of honorary degrees from proposed recipients because some students regarded their views as offensive. Other deserving candidates have been passed over for fear of offending some.
We live in an age in which censoring material that is deemed offensive by some is becoming widely accepted, especially among young people on the left.
There are, of course, major differences between using criminal means (violence, hacking, threats) and using arguably lawful means (speech codes, rescinding invitations) to achieve the censorship of offending material, but the results may be similar: self-censorship.
In my book "Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law," published last year, I predicted that “self-censorship that results from fear of violent responses” will give “those who threaten violence an effective veto over what can be published in the United States.” Unfortunately, events since I wrote those words have confirmed their accuracy.
So why are we surprised when a foreign dictator tries to achieve what mainstream Americans – and indeed mainstream leftists around the globe – are trying to achieve: namely the “right” to be free from being offended.
This alleged “right” is, of course, in direct conflict with the most basic of rights in any democracy: the right to express views deemed offensive by some, and the corollary right to hear or see such views.
There are at least two ways a person can be offended by freedom of expression. The first is by actually having to read the offending book or see the offending film. In totalitarian dictatorships, citizens are indeed required to read and see what the dictator wants them to be exposed to. Not so in democracies, where we are free to choose our book and films.
The second is by simply knowing that others, who are not offended, may choose to read or see the offending work.
The first has a simple solution: don’t read the book; don’t see the movie; change the channel; drink Pepsi instead of SodaStream.
The second has no legitimate claim to acceptance in a diverse democracy. Citizen A should not be able to prevent Citizen B from reading or seeing something that would offend Citizen A if he were required to read or see it.
There are also cases in which the material in question reveals private information about Citizen A or portrays him or her in an unsavory light. In those cases, there are appropriate legal remedies – such as the law of defamation – for those who are harmed by what others read about them. Beyond that, being offended should never be the basis for censoring.
So if we really want any right to delegitimize what the North Korean dictator is ostensibly trying to do to us, we should begin at home: by delegitimizing the efforts of our own citizens to censor material that they find offensive.
Alan M. Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard, a practicing criminal and constitutional lawyer and the author, most recently, of "Terror Tunnels: The Case for Israel's Just War Against Hamas."
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now