Saturday, June 14, 2008

Freedom of Speech is Uniquely American

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — A couple of years ago, a Canadian magazine published an article arguing that the rise of Islam threatened Western values. The article’s tone was mocking and biting, but it said nothing that conservative magazines and blogs in the United States do not say every day without fear of legal reprisal.

Things are different here. The magazine is on trial.

This is very interesting to me. I have a practically instinctual reaction that a free press, uncensored except under very specific circumstances, is a bedrock of not only society but also democracy. It is one of the most fundamental values of our country, and indeed, of any self-governing people. I trust in the "marketplace of ideas" that says that even unpopular or disgusting thoughts should have the same right of utterance as anything beautiful or sublime. Let individuals evaluate ideas on their own and make their own decisions. People are in general wise enough to do that. I fear no idea, but I do fear government making decisions for us about what is acceptable to publish or say or write. Even if rascist, sexist, homophobic, people are and should be free to say them. Those ideas, once evaluated, will be rejected, as they should be. That's the beuaty of a free press and freedom of speech.


“In much of the developed world, one uses racial epithets at one’s legal peril, one displays Nazi regalia and the other trappings of ethnic hatred at significant legal risk, and one urges discrimination against religious minorities under threat of fine or imprisonment,” Frederick Schauer, a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, wrote in a recent essay called “The Exceptional First Amendment.”

The NYT article quoted above is a very interesting and thought-provoking review of how other countries deal with unpopular ideas like denying the Holocaust or advocating violence. In many nations, concepts of freedome of speech are just not seen as strongly as they are here in the US. It was really eye-opening for me to see that. It makes me value the freedoms we have even more. It makes me want to defend anyone with an unpopular viewpoint. As the quote goes, "I disagree completely with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

On this Flag Day, when we celebrate the symbol of what this nation stands for at its best, "with liberty, and justice, for all," I stand by the First Amendment for all people, regardless of their viewpoint.


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