Monday, September 17, 2012

Freedom of Speech a primer for non-Americans

Today, the muslim world is still roiled by the specter of a poorly made, bottom-of-the-barrel production movie said to insult the prophet Muhammed and the religion he founded, Islam.

This time, it was the leader of Hezbollah who warned the US of dire consequences if the government allowed the release of this movie, and others demanded that the US make a law forbidding the insulting of religion - specifically, presumably, Islam.

I know that I occasionally see hits to this blog from around the world.  Not many, but a journey begins with a single step.

The ABC World News, with Diane Sawyer tonight showed some footage, including a young woman in, I think, Egypt, being asked whether she believed people should have the right to free speech, to “say whatever they want”.

Her reply?  “Yes, but not about religion!”

I think that, overseas, among those who are not schooled in the finer points of American Constitutional law, there are some rather severe misunderstandings.

You see, we have this Constitution, which is the foundational document which governs all other law in this country.  It is the authority from which all lower laws draw their legitimacy.  All lower law must be governed by the Constitution, and if a law is passed by Congress or a State, County or local government, it is illegal and of no affect.

There are some 28 Amendments to this document so far.  The first Ten were passed within a few years of the original document being ratified and are known collectively as the Bill of Rights.

The very first one, the First amendment as it is so wisely known, goes like this:

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.

These five subjects were so important in how they were viewed by the Founders that they were placed in a position of primacy - in the very first one, together.

Freedom of Religion
Freedom of Speech
Freedom of the Press
Freedom of Assembly
Freedom of a right to petition the government

Together, they have been described by Jefferson and the rest as the cornerstones of democracy.  Without these rights, democracy cannot operate.

Lets take the ones not at issue here and get them out of the way.

The last three, freedom of the press, assembly and petition are important, but they are not the subject of our essay today.

Take the freedom of religion.  Often misunderstood and today widely twisted out of shape by the christian right wing, it is singularly the most important of the rights protected by the Bill of Rights.  It gives every person living in the United States, regardless of your status, citizen, green card resident, visitor and citizen of another country, illegal alien or a prisoner in an American jail, the right to worship according to the religion of your choice. and forbids the government from either interfering in that worship or favoring that worship.  It also has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to apply also to atheists who don’t worship at all, so that they are protected from being forced to worship that which they do not believe.

This is important to the current situation, and I’ll touch on that later.

Second is that freedom of speech thing.  You know, the part that let’s you say pretty much whatever is on your mind without interference from the government.  Notice how I italicized those last three words.  That is important.  It means that the government cannot censor your words, unless under very strictly prescribed circumstances.  

I am afraid that insulting religion isn’t one of those permitted circumstances.  the most famous example, crying “fire” in a crowded theater, simply means that you cannot say something which puts people in imminent danger.  That word “imminent” is the operative word.  Unless the danger you cause is imminent, the government cannot proscribe your words, and you are free to speak.

Now that film the muslims are so hyped up about, it is apparently a fair shocker to those who are adherents of Islam.  I also understand that even those who are atheists are shocked by it - by how outright bad it is!  Not the content, but the production, the acting and the poorly followed story line.  It is, in the words of one I read, simply one of the worst films ever made.

The producer is apparently an ex-Egyptian, an ex-muslim, who is doing this as his opinion of Islam, to show how bad the religion is.  Which, in reality, is why the clerics are so angry about it.

You see, this freedom thing?  It means he has the right to produce and release this film.  The government cannot stop it from being released.  The government has no ability to pass a law making insulting religion illegal.  It just can’t.  It’s that First Amendment thing, you see?  People have opinions, and we have the right in this country to express those opinions, and a political opinion is particularly protected, according to the Supreme Court of the US.

So, if you are a muslim, and you hate this film, congratulations.  Your country, over there, probably is glad to have you express that opinion.  It will gladly allow you to gather together with your fellow citizens and protest against the US all you like.

Just don’t try to gather together to express support for us, or you’ll find yourself in trouble.   That’s because we have freedom of speech and you don’t.

Just because you don’t like the content of the speech doesn’t give you the right to censor that speech.  That’s also what freedom of speech means - if everybody agrees with it, it doesn’t need protection, does it?  It is the unpopular speech that is in need of protection, and here, it has that protection.

Religion has a problem with speech.  Anywhere that religion has a strong enough hold of the law, speech is not free.  There are still countries which have laws doing just what you want - restricting speech against the State religion - in place.  And these are christian countries.  Fortunately, almost none of these laws are regularly enforced.

But in muslim countries, the reverse is true.  Even in mixed religion countries, such as India, there are very strong blasphemy laws.

This is the exact opposite of what the US’ first Amendment is and means.  It is a protection against the likelihood of the government coming after you for saying something unpopular.

It is why your rage against the United States government is misplaced.  What you don’t see is that to us, the American people, our government is us!  It isn’t an autocratic group ruling over us, enforcing its strictures against an unwilling populace.  The government is the people, passing laws that we want and agree with.

When you are angry about a film that insults your religion or your prophet, get angry with the people who produced it.  Understand that in this country, they have that right, and they have the right to insult, excoriate, criticize, denounce, lambast and to generally harangue any religion we wish - precisely because  the free expression of opinion is sacred to a fully functioning democracy.  Nothing is out of bounds or protected from insult.

You have, in short, no right to not be insulted.  You can be as outraged as you wish, but the counter to speech you find insulting or outrageous isn’t violence, it is more speech.

You see, there is this thing we call the Streisand Effect.  It is, in short the effect of attracting more attention to something you’d rather be ignored or forgotten.  By protesting and rioting against this film, instead of it being laughed at and forgotten as a bad production, it is getting way more attention that it ever would have otherwise.

Welcome to the Internet.


Anonymous said...

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Robert Ahrens said...

Thank you! I appreciate your comments, and it is good to know you enjoy my writing.