The more we talk about the importance of free speech rights, the more we seem confused about what they really mean. Uproar over an American-made video denigrating Islam begs a spirited response about why freedom of speech and freedom of religion must be protected. And yet the seeming contradictions over how we apply those rights are debated as never before.
To many around the world, America is the protector of freedoms. Are these freedoms safe in our hands?
At the United Nations, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi announced his opposition to America’s understanding of freedom of speech (articulated eloquently by President Barack Obama recently) and called on the U.N. to crack down on speech deemed insulting to religion. Most Americans recoil at attacks on free speech, but for a moment it may be instructive to see the issue through the eyes of those not enamored with the Western point of view.
They see a contradiction at work — an America increasingly hostile to words and ideas that are insensitive to certain “protected” groups. They see people routinely paying a high price for hate speech and workplace discrimination (some of which, First Amendment advocates argue, should be protected speech). They see how easily words and images hurt in a society that gives lip service to freedom of expression and they listen to a growing chorus of argument over what should be permitted ... and they wonder why a video that mocks a major religion should be wrapped in a protective cocoon by that same country.
And so the call goes out at the U.N. by the leader of a Muslim country — which has its own issues of religious tolerance to address — to curb speech deemed to incite hatred. Meanwhile, many non-Muslims look at the arguments and question the inconsistencies. They see clips of Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking to Eastern countries about how much they abhor what the video stands for, assuring them that America is disgusted by blasphemies against “all” religions. But adherents to other religions don’t respond to attacks by attacking embassies and killing our ambassadors — so our outrage is narrowly targeted.