It would be a really, really, really, really bad idea for Metro to post Muhammad cartoon ads.

No one has the right to gun another person down due to speech. Obvious, right?

At the same time, mocking someone’s religion is impolite. It’s not punishable by violence, but you could understand the discomfort someone would fee when the key figures of their religious tradition are mocked. That should be obvious, but people still seem to like draw cartoons of the Muslim prophet Muhammad.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority will not accept an ad featuring the winning cartoon from the Texas “Draw Muhammad” contest which ended in gunfire earlier this month. Good for them. It’s one of the few good decisions Metro has made. (Though they, did go overboard by banning all issue-related ads through the end of the year. Perhaps Metro can’t help but be a little wrong.)

What does the American Freedom Defense Initiative think would happen if such ads went up on Metro? Anyone with $1.70 and patience for delays can jump on the Metro without so much as a pat-down or a peek inside a suspiciously bulky book bag. It is, like many places, a “soft” target for terrorists now. Muhammad cartoons would make it a desirable target as well. “Soft” and “desirable” and “not chocolate chip cookies” is not a good spot on the homeland security Venn diagram.

Sure, a violent response from radical Islamic terrorists would be evil and wrong, just as it was in Texas. But it is not unpredictable, and because of that there are many people – train passengers, Metro staff, and the like – unintentionally in the crosshairs.

They would not engage in any speech at all, yet would bear the brunt of the repercussions. In fact, they may not want to engage in such speech at all – since Muhammad cartoons are offensive not only to the radicals who will respond with violence, but for the civilized who won’t respond at all. There’s no need to needle the latter to poke the former.

By rejecting the Muhammad cartoons, Metro is not limiting free speech. In the first place, that’s because Metro owns the ad space, and should be able to rent it to whomever they choose. But beyond that, there will be plenty of people who don’t want to bear the predictable consequences of that speech. Why should anyone be allowed to put words in their mouth?

Restricting free speech the right way

In America, for the most part, you have every right to say what you like.  But you may understand that it’s not always a good idea.

In decrying the mass media reaction to to the school shooting in Connecticut, Matt Lewis floated the idea of media control.  It was an intentionally over-the-top suggestion to demonstrate absurdity, but he has a point.  Separating recent events from the discussion, how many times have you heard (or even used) the phrase “the 24-hour news cycle” when explaining some social phenomenon or another?  It’s why our politics have been reduced to sound-bite-driven partisan hackery, it’s why Mark Sanchez has regressed as a quarterback, and it’s why “crisis communication” has become a must-have asset for big businesses.

Mama Eltringham had a saying back in the day: “The more hurry, the less speed” – meaning the faster you try to get something done, the more you tend to mess up.  Things like accuracy and thoughtful context fly out the window pretty quick when a media outlet relentlessly focused on scooping the other guys.  But accuracy and quality are essential elements for a press, so if they are flying out the window, someone will eventually come along and slam it shut.

Unimaginative libertarians hear the suggestion of “regulation” and bristle instantly.  But that can take many forms.  In the 1940s, it took the form of the Hutchins Commission, which famously outlined the duties of a  free and responsible press.  That commission (which was initiated by publishers and academics) sprang from concerns that while there were more and more people relying on the press, control of the mass media was falling into the hands of a few key players.  The key impetus behind the commission, though, was a fear that these concerns were the types of problems that, left unattended, would eventually result in rollbacks of the First Amendment.  The Hutchins Commission’s stab at self-regulation has now been taught for decades in Journalism departments across the country.

Today’s press faces the twin challenges of media consolidation and the ubiquity of information channels, including new/social media.  (The popularity of these new channels, incidentally, is a direct result of the lack of trust citizens have in the mainstream press.)  And of course there are the various strings attached to that dreaded “24-hour news cycle.”

Rollbacks on press freedom would not be good public policy, of course.  But since when has the quality of a policy ever prevented a knee-jerk implementation?  Federal law books alone have pages and pages of dumb or antiquated laws that aren’t removed for fear of public outcry.  In the right environment, media regulations could be in play – not today or tomorrow, but a bit farther down the path the press is currently on.

Before that day comes, major media outlets would be wise to put their heads together to think about how they are handling their freedom of the press, before some else thinks about it for them.

Shut up, I have freedom of speech

Don’t want to do business with WikiLeaks?  You might find your website getting hacked, like MasterCard or Paypal.  (And you might also get hacked if you represent women who are making accusations of rape, depending on whom they accused.)  Participants in what has been dubbed “Operation Payback” seem just organized enough to take some time off from complaining about not being able to get unlimited movies and music for free online to wreak a little bit of havoc.

The hackers’ concerns are echoed by DataCell, a company that helps WikiLeaks process payments.  DataCell is getting ready to sue Visa and MasterCard to force them to work with WikiLeaks, according to CEO Andreas Fink:

We strongly believe a world class company such as Visa should not get involved by politics and just simply do their business where they are good at. Transferring money. They have no problem transferring money for other businesses such as gambling sites, pornography services and the like so why a donation to a Website which is holding up for human rights should be morally any worse than that is outside of my understanding.

Visa is hurting Wikileaks and DataCell ehf in high figures. Putting all payments on hold for 7 days or more is one thing but rejecting all further attempts to donate is making the donations impossible. This does clearly create massive financial losses to Wikileaks which seems to be the only purpose of this suspension. This is not about the brand of Visa, this is about politics and Visa should not be involved in this.

To summarize what Fink appears to be driving in his sputtered sentence fragments: Visa should not be involved in politics, therefore Fink will use a political entity (the judicial system) to force them to do business with a political organization (WikiLeaks).  Fink and Operation Payback are each quick to defend WikiLeaks’s right to publish unpopular speech, but intolerant of other groups’ choices to simply take their business elsewhere.

The whole mess is a dress rehearsal for the coming clash on American internet regulations like net neutrality. If a site (like WikiLeaks) depends on other companies (like ISPs, hosting companies, and donation platforms) for their survival, will those companies be forced by law to support WikiLeaks and their mission?