Limits of free speech in an age of terrorism

Limits of free speech in an age of terrorism

We live in a world in which revolutions form in part because of digital media. It seems that everyone today has digital media to amplify whatever noise they want to make – good or bad – and can utilize media without a filter.

The right to make “noise” is not absolute. To paraphrase a well-known U.S. Supreme Court decision dealing with limitations on free speech – when the speech in question is imminently dangerous and has no conceivable purpose – “Shouting fire in a crowded theatre” is not allowed.

In light of the pressure brought to bear by the American government on Wikileaks – including pressuring financial companies not to process payments, threatened prosecutions, and the like – a close friend of mine, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner of the Shurat HaDin Israel Law Center, is threatening to sue Twitter for allowing terrorists to use the digital media network.

She is smart, focused, and ideological – a formidable opponent raising a valid point. If the U.S. government deems these organizations illegal and they can’t raise funds, why are they allowed to disseminate their message freely to Americans?

Leitner’s organization is a civil rights organization dedicated to “combating the terrorist organizations and the regimes that support them through lawsuits litigated in courtrooms around the world.” They have done a lot of good worldwide to fight terrorism via “lawfare” – utilizing the courtroom to battle anti-Western interests.

Hezbollah, al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab, and others violate American law by using Twitter. [A breakdown of terrorists utilizing social media can be found at]

The ACLU says “The government can’t force private companies to censor lawful speech just because the government doesn’t like the speech or the people making the speech.” Does that mean I can go online and scream fire in a crowded theatre? Can I behave however I want simply because I am online and hidden behind a computer screen?

In light of the fact that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently cited President Obama as believing that “the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become,” one wonders where the administration will stand if mass rioting is sparked by digital media. U.K. authorities say rioters used social networks to coordinate acts of mass civil disobedience earlier this year in London. State prosecutors in Mexico have accused people of terrorism and sabotage, claiming that their Twitter posts helped spread false rumors about a school attack, leading to real-life violence.

It’s no secret that the terrorists are public relations savvy and very concerned with brand and image. As was recently reported, Al Qaeda is concerned about the baggage associated with its name, and is increasingly going by the name “Ansar al Sharia.” It is also no secret that American public relations agencies have represented Qaddafi and Assad; and just last year Qatar hired a leading U.S. public relations firm to lobby for the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip.

Darshan-Leitner stopped the second Gaza flotilla earlier this year and has won lawsuits against Hamas, Hizbollah, and the Palestinian Authority. I am sure Twitter’s going to be answering this one pretty soon. I’d venture that a modern “fire in a crowded theatre” discussion may be coming to a courtroom near us very soon.