There was a flap last week when it appeared that the US would agree to an international treaty outlawing ‘blasphemous’ speech. That seemed to be rolled back by statements from the US State Dept. that noted such laws would restrict free speech.
Some observers are not confident that the ‘roll back’ was neither sufficient nor meant to be taken seriously. Case in point is Stuart Taylor, Jr, writing in National Journal Magazine, a conservative political journal:
Troubling Signals On Free Speech
In his eagerness to please international opinion, President Obama has taken a small but significant step toward censoring free speech
Stuart Taylor, Jr
It was nice to hear Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton say on October 26, “I strongly disagree” with Islamic countries seeking to censor free speech worldwide by making defamation of religion a crime under international law.
But watch what the Obama administration does, not just what it says. I’m not talking about its attacks on Fox News. I’m talking about a little-publicized October 2 resolution in which Clinton’s own State Department joined Islamic nations in adopting language all-too-friendly to censoring speech that some religions and races find offensive.
The ambiguously worded United Nations Human Rights Council resolution could plausibly be read as encouraging or even obliging the U.S. to make it a crime to engage in hate speech, or, perhaps, in mere “negative racial and religious stereotyping.” This despite decades of First Amendment case law protecting such speech.
To be sure, the provisions to which I refer were a compromise, stopping short of the flat ban on defamation of religion sought by Islamic nations, and they could also be construed more narrowly and innocuously. It all depends on who does the construing.
Is it “negative stereotyping” to say that the world’s most dangerous terrorists are Islamists, for example? Many would say yes.
On the eponymous Volokh Conspiracy law blog, Eugene Volokh, professor of Constitutional law at UCLA and expert on the First and Second Amendments, believes that Stuart is essentially correct in his reading of recent events. Volokh briefly discusses Stuart’s piece and raises the question of how the US government should reply to a request/demand that intolerant speech be criminalized. He offers several possible answers—many informed by a certain political cynicism—and leaves it to his readers to bash it out in the comments.
The cynicism may be un peu de trop, but the agreement of the US government to limitations on free speech is troubling. In my view, religion cannot be carved out as an exclusionary zone where the freedoms to think and say what one believes become criminal. States simply should not have the power to punish anyone for what he thinks or what he says, with the narrowest of exceptions only. Religion is not a narrow exception.
Some might argue that this is ‘cultural imperialism’, insisting that a Western value, free speech, be imposed on cultures that give lesser value to that freedom. Perhaps it is. I would argue that the most expansive reading of a freedom is categorically better than a narrow reading, no matter which culture originates it. Without the freedom to think and speak, no other freedom can be said to truly exist, and that includes religious freedom. Instead, a human right becomes a gift from government, and that’s too much power for any government or group of governments to wield.