Sunday, June 15, 2008

"...but to the death I will defend your right to say it."

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
(First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.)

Last week there was an interesting article in the International Herald Tribune that dealt with the concept of free speech, and how it differs in most of the Western world as compared with the U.S. (The article was actually a reprint from the NY Times.) It begins by describing the case of a Canadian magazine that, "published an article arguing that the rise of Islam threatened Western values." The IHT piece points out that in the U.S., this type of an article is an everyday occurrence, and that such opinion pieces can be made in the U.S. without fear of legal reprisal.

In Canada however, there is a statute on the books that labels this type of piece as "hate speech," and the magazine that published it is on trial for violating the law. This type of law is also prevalent in many countries in Western Europe. The article points out that:

"Canada, Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, Australia and India all have laws or have signed international conventions banning hate speech. Israel and France forbid the sale of Nazi items like swastikas and flags. It is a crime to deny the Holocaust in Canada, Germany and France."

Hate speech. It is a term that on the surface appears quite reasonable. However, in my estimation it is a dangerous term that can lead to the slippery slope of censorship. I find it incredible that in countries such as Germany and France, two nations that experienced the full force of fascism head on, such laws could even be considered. What was the lesson they took away from the Nazis? Did they not learn that having their most basic freedoms stripped from them, especially the ability to voice an unpopular opinion, was the thing that led to the horrors they experienced? If someone wants to deny the Holocaust, what is the better course of action; to prosecute them, throw them in jail, or to let them rave on and the let the entire population of the country see them for the buffoons that they are? Here in the U.S., a denial of the Holocaust, while distasteful and painful for those who lived through it, is a constitutionally protected right, as it should be.

The only time that free speech is not protected, and rightfully so, is when it is used to incite and promote violence or other criminality on an immediate basis. This is the test that the Supreme Court has used time and time again. The article quotes
Harvey Silverglate, a Boston civil liberties lawyer, who says, ""Free speech matters because it works," and that scrutiny and debate are far more effective ways of combating hate speech than censorship. again, from the article:

"The world didn't suffer because too many people read 'Mein Kampf,"' Silverglate said. "Sending Hitler on a speaking tour of the United States would have been quite a good idea."

Hate speech however, is not the only example of how freedom of speech can be limited, or downright outlawed. When we look to China, which censors internet users on a regular basis, or to places like Saudi Arabia, that arrested bloggers such as for
Fouad al-Farhan last December for expressing unpopular opinions regarding Saudi government, religious, and business leaders, we see examples that should makes us all the more vigilant in making sure that the First Amendment maintains its effectiveness. Although I have been blogging for only a short while, I have been reading blogs for the better part of four years. I feel very fortunate to live in a place where my ability to speak my mind remains unencumbered.

Even here we have seen things that can be viewed as violations of this most effective right. When people can be arrested or banned from political rallies because they may be wearing t-shirts that express views opposite those of the politicians that are speaking at the time, then this is a violation that cannot be tolerated, and both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of this action. Let me be clear on this; I am not referring to disruptive behavior at a rally. I am not talking about throwing pies or other objects into politicians faces. Assault has no place in any instance, nor am I referring to the shouting down of an official or politician. If you want your position to be heard, than you had best allow the other side to be heard as well, otherwise you have nothing more than a mob on your hands. (Watch the first episode of the excellent HBO series "John Adams" to see an example of this, or read The David McCullough biography on which the series was based.)

The author of the Canadian article in the magazine that is being prosecuted stated that, "Western governments are becoming increasingly comfortable with the regulation of opinion. The First Amendment really does distinguish the U.S., not just from Canada but from the rest of the Western world."

Let us hope it remains so, for as the famous maxim goes, "I disapprove of what you say, but to the death I will defend your right to say it."


Peter said...

I like your final quote:

"Western governments are becoming increasingly comfortable with the regulation of opinion. The First Amendment really does distinguish the U.S., not just from Canada but from the rest of the Western world."

I blog on a US wordpress server, as Belgian laws would probably stop me from posting many of the controversial issues I've been discussing.

Antwerp, Belgium (and even more so, Brussels) has severe social and ethnic issues: the local 'powers that be' will do anything to stop free speech.
Even posting facts (the aggressive Muslims in the left bank pool) is often perceived as "unacceptable".

While I'm a tolerant, empathic member of a minority myself, I hate to see how Belgium is restricting free speech by issuing draconian laws that turn any discordant sounds into "criminal acts of disruptive behavior".

Guyana-Gyal said...

We have some sort of freedom of speech see this especially in letters to the newspapers.

Strangely enough, when it comes to other people's beliefs, most folks leave that alone. We live in a multi-cultural, multi-racial, religious society, we go to each others' homes, attend other folks' religious functions, weddings, funerals, etc.

I know this might sound strange to someone from a bigger, more 'enlightened' society...but folks here are far, far more tolerant than folks in the west and the east. Goodness knows what we are then, east or west...I think of us as 'south', haha.

Most people here understand that 'religion' is not to to be confused with the nefarious activities of terrorists, or the ignorance of the east.

I think, what we've learnt here, living so close together, is that tolerance is not just something you say you are, it is something you live.