Monday, July 21, 2008

Free Speech versus Hate Speech

Saying something that I disagree with, even something that offends me, is the beginning of finding common ground. If differences are hidden, they remain unresolved and fester.
Photo source: Free Speech Blog

Freedom of speech is something that is so ingrained in most Americans that we take it for granted. Much of the rest of the world, including countries I would otherwise consider free or at least enlightened, place limits of speech that range from draconian to the absurd.

We take this right, defined by the The US Supreme Court in Abrams v. U S , 250 U.S. 616 (1919), so much for granted that we often forget the responsibilities that go with freedom. With the right to speak your piece comes the responsibility to be truthful in what you say. And I’m not talking about the “It depends on what is is” kind of truthfulness. It’s OK to be wrong, inaccurate, or to interpret facts differently. It’s not OK to out-and-out lie, as in “We know exactly where the WMD are.”

Beyond that, we forget the responsible to be respectful. I may be ugly and my cattle may be senile, but you don’t have to say so unless those facts bear directly on the issue at hand.

Much of the rest of the world takes a slightly different stand on free speech. They take bans on “hate speech” to extremes. It seems that if someone is offended by what you say, it is hate speech. This tactic is the other side of a very slippery slope.

This article outlines a case before a court in British Columbia. A group of Muslims are suing a magazine for running an excerpt from a book that claims that Islamic values conflict with and threaten Western values. In opening statements, the plaintiff attorney makes this horrifying and frightening claim:

Innocent intent is not a defense. Nor is truth. Nor is fair comment on true facts. Publication in the public interest and for the public benefit is not a defense. Opinion expressed in good faith is not a defense. Responsible journalism is not a defense.

If not these, then what? Nothing? Without free speech, there is no free thought, no freedom at all, only the illusion of it.

So for that—even though I am embarrassed by and afraid of the actions of the Bush administration to circumvent and invalidate the Constitution—and even though I have often thought about fleeing northward, today I am grateful to live in the United States.

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