Monday, February 13, 2006

Freedom of Speech & Religion

In the United States, we have devoted the first amendment to the Constitution to protect freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion. We’ve limited the role of government in deciding and enforcing all moral questions. Instead, we have designated government’s role as an alliance of people and states dedicated to protecting life, liberty and property.

However, universally it seems that people continue to run to government screaming of various perceived injustices. We allow government to take on the role of the elementary school teacher, to whom we run when the other kids make fun of us or don’t share their toys or refuse to let us join them in a game of football at recess. It is not enough that we have the right to our own lives, property and freedom. We want property belonging to others. We redefine terms like “public use.” We want our speech to be unrestricted, but insist that others do not have the right to insult us. We make up terms like “hate speech” so we can ask government to regulate what others say.

After Danish cartoonists published cartoons that negatively depicted Mohammed, a prophet according to Islam, there were more cries against freedom of speech. Arguments ranged from declaring that the press is an institution to serve the public interest to declaring that the cartoons fall under the category of “hate speech” and cannot be protected. They’ve all tried claiming that the issue is not freedom of speech, per se, but an issue of fairness or some other newly invented right.

Here are some of the arguments I’ve seen:
"The Danish cartoon controversy is not about freedom of religion versus freedom of expression, as the media is framing the debate. This is about the role of the media and journalists in our society … everyone should be respected and sensitively represented by the institutions that are intended to serve the public interest." [emphasis added]

"There is a fine line between criticism and abuse. One has the right to criticise aspects of Islam, but one should not have the right to make fun of Muslims or their faith."
(Both taken from Bangladesh news sources).

“Jyllands-Posten refused to publish caricatures of Jesus in 2003 because they would “offend” its readers. Why then is its invitation to caricature Muhammad protected by free speech provisions?” asked authors Na'eem Jeenah, Charles Amjad-Ali and Salim Vally in their article entitled, "This is Not About Freedom of Speech."

Why? As the owner of the paper and printing equipment, the newspaper can decide what it wishes to publish and what it does not. Had the newspaper chosen to publish caricatures of Jesus in 2003, those would have been protected under free speech. The decision not to offend in one instance can be motivated out of one’s moral convictions or one’s desire to keep profits high.

But the main reason why is to avoid occurrences such as this one, which are common in countries that allow the government to influence what is published or said.

"Two weekly newspaper editors charged with "harming religious feelings" by reprinting offensive caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed were released on bail Sunday after a request was made by Jordan's press watchdog." according to an Israeli newspaper.

Let’s not take the wrong lesson from the Danish cartoon controversy. We have freedom of speech not because we agree with everything that is said, but because we would like to speak when others do not necessarily agree with us. We have freedom of religion not because we believe all religions are equally valid, but because we wish to worship or refrain from worship as we choose. Freedom of speech should not come with the disclaimer that “anything you say can be held against you in a court of law.”

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