Monday, September 17, 2012

In Defense of Free Speech

Last week in many Muslim countries there were violent anti-American demonstrations in response to a crude 14 minute video posted on YouTube entitled “Innocence of Muslims.” The US Ambassador to Libya and three members of his staff were murdered when the US consulate in Benghazi was attacked.

In the midst of these events, US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney accused the Obama administration of sympathizing with the attackers.  Mitt Romney inserted himself inappropriately into an unfolding international crisis and made false accusations.

In a dignified manner, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton both spoke about the attacks and eulogized the Americans who had been killed.  They condemned the attacks saying that they were completely unjustified and that the murderers would be brought to justice. 

However, Hillary Clinton's remarks on the topic of free speech in this context did not go far enough.  Here is what she said:

“Now, I know it is hard for some people to understand why the United States cannot or does not just prevent these kinds of reprehensible videos from ever seeing the light of day. Now, I would note that in today’s world with today’s technologies, that is impossible. But even if it were possible, our country does have a long tradition of free expression, which is enshrined in our Constitution and our law, and we do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views no matter how distasteful they may be.

There are, of course, different views around the world about the outer limits of free speech and free expression, but there should be no debate about the simple proposition that violence in response to speech is not acceptable. We all, whether we are leaders in government, leaders in civil society or religious leaders, must draw the line at violence. And any responsible leader should be standing up now and drawing that line.”

These remarks come up short.  The Secretary of State appears only to explain why, because of US law, the US could not block the video.  She went on to say that there are "different views around the world about the outer limits of free speech and free expression."

In contrast, she should have used this event as a teaching moment to promote free speech to the world as a universal human right – not just as a - perhaps inconvenient - restraint on government action.

In many countries around the world one can be imprisoned - or even executed - for speaking against the government or government actions and policies, for disparaging the country or its political leaders, for blasphemy, for disparaging religion, or for just expressing unpopular views.  The recent Pussy Riot episode vividly demonstrated that in Russia individuals can be imprisoned for insulting the Russian Orthodox Church and/or Vladimir Putin.

The United States of America should boldly proclaim that freedom of speech is a fundamental human right that needs to be protected.  One has the right to express unpopular views and, yes, even to denigrate the views that others hold dear.   It is always unacceptable to physically attack one who expresses unpopular views.  One can respond verbally, hold peaceful demonstrations, or just ignore what is being said.

Views that were at one time viewed as highly objectionable are now universally accepted – for example opposition to slavery, support of universal suffrage, and support of civil rights.  One hopes that some views which are currently objected to by some, such as support of LGBT rights, will also shortly gain universal acceptance.

Some currently unpopular views are indeed condemnable.  However, open discussion enabled by freedom of speech is what protects us from tyranny – not limitation of speech by governments, religious leaders, or mobs.

1 comment:

  1. As I have read your blogs during the past year, I have NEVER agreed with you on anjy point, as our opinions and values are on the complete opposite ends of the spectrum. However, on this I could not agree more. Ms. Clinton and President Obama were 100% wrong when they made their disparaging remarks relative to this video. They WANTED the video to be the cause of the "riots", which as it turned out is very far from the truth. And, in effect, tried to hide their foreign policy incompetance by blaming the American freedoms for Muslims around the world to be justifiably upset. It is time we, as Americans, proclaim that our independence is something to be respected and admired, not condemned.