Friday, September 28, 2012

President Obama at the UN: Free Speech

President Obama
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I'm behind the curve on this, but I finally had an opportunity to read Obama's UN speech, and I'll just excerpt from the White House transcript what he said on free speech. But first this:
[Violence] is what we saw play out in the last two weeks, as a crude and disgusting video sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world. Now, I have made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video, and I believe its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity.
I think this choice of words generally appropriate. Obama speaks not for the US government, but for himself in rejecting the video's message, and I think that's consistent with the American separation of religion and state. With that point out of the way, let's see what he says about free expression:
I know there are some who ask why we don't just ban such a video. And the answer is enshrined in our laws: Our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech . . . . [I]n the United States, countless publications provoke offense. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs . . . . Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views, even views that we profoundly disagree with. We do not do so because we support hateful speech, but because our founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views . . . may be threatened . . . . [and] because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities . . . . [T]he strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression; it is more speech . . . . I know that not all countries in this body share this particular understanding of the protection of free speech . . . . But in 2012, at a time when anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete. The question, then, is how do we respond? . . . [W]e must agree: There is no speech that justifies mindless violence . . . . In this modern world with modern technologies, for us to respond in that way to hateful speech empowers any individual who engages in such speech to create chaos around the world. We empower the worst of us if that's how we respond.
I can,for the most part, agree with these words. The President defends a fairly vigorous version of free speech after the administration's somewhat faltering initial response a couple of weeks ago, somewhat as the assistant attorney general first faltered on, but later affirmed free expression last summer. Oddly, this is often the case with principles set down in the Constitution. People tend to forget them, falter in response to some difficult situation, but when reminded that Constitutional principles are at stake, they usually rally in support.

One expects the US government to rally with more alacrity on such a fundamental principle as free speech . . . but better late than never.

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