Our right of free speech is not a partisan issue in America. Democrats and Republicans, both President Obama and Presidential aspirant Romney, vigorously support its value and its constitutional guarantee. The extent of that right, which is not without limits, is greater in the U.S. than in any other country. The right to speak in some countries is simply at the whim of the existing government. The residents in some counties, such as Egypt, have more limited but legally defined (in principle at least) rights. Even the UK limits its press more than it is in the U.S. (think of the invasion of the privacy of the Queen and her family, though British standards are evolving too).
On this as with so many other issues, the world would benefit from a civil but vigorous discussion of the value of free speech to a healthy society and as a check on the powers of government and of where it is most appropriate to define its boundaries with the right to privacy and other values. We also need to understand and respect (but not necessarily agree with) the boundaries established by other countries and cultures.
President Obama reflected the American view well in his UN speech September 25.
“As president of our country, and commander in chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day. And I will defend their right to do so…. We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics, or oppress minorities. We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech — the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect…. There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There is no video that justifies an attack on an embassy. There is no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon, or destroy a school in Tunis, or cause death and destruction in Pakistan.”
The next day, to the same UN audience, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi defined a different position: “The obscenities that I have referred to that were recently released as part of an organized campaign against Islamic sanctities are unacceptable. We reject this. We cannot accept it. We will not allow anyone to do this by word or deed…. Egypt respects freedom of expression, [but] not a freedom of expression that targets a specific religion or a specific culture.”
Any real dialog over this issue requires a deeper understanding of just President Morsi means when he says “we will not allow anyone to do this.” He clarified this in the same speech: “Egypt respects freedom of expression,… [but] not a freedom of expression that targets a specific religion or a specific culture.”
The arrest in Cairo of Alber Saber, a 27-year-old Coptic Christian Egyptian illustrates an application of what President Morsi means. Saber was accused of providing a link on his Facebook page to the inflammatory video “Innocence of Muslims”, which he denies. He “was arrested two weeks ago on charges of disdaining religion and ridiculing religious beliefs and rituals…. Showing contempt toward what Egyptian statutes call the “heavenly” religions — Christianity, Islam and Judaism — is punishable by up to five years in prison.
“The same day, [as Obama’s UN address] Egyptian authorities announced that charges would be filed against a prominent Islamist activist and TV personality, Ahmed Mohammed Abdullah, who tore up a copy of the Bible during a demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo…. But liberal activists here say the blasphemy laws are so vague, and applied almost exclusively when people allegedly defame Islam, that they are nothing more than a political tool.”
Clearly Egypt has a very different standard of free of speech than we do. We have very good reasons for believing that our more liberal standards are better and we should defend that view. But obviously views differ and those differences must be respected.
The freedom of speech is not absolute anywhere. All Americans know that we are not free to shout fire in a theater unless we think there is one. We are not allowed to deliberately tell lies about others in public. But that already puts us in some difficult waters, as the distinction between deliberate and unknowing lies is not easy to establish. In seeking the best balance between free speech and the right to privacy, American libel laws have set different standards for public (politicians, movie stars, etc.) and private individuals on the grounds that by choosing to become “public” officials or celebrities, such people have chosen to forgo some of their privacy.
For most of our country’s existence, free speech was thought to apply primarily to political speech and religious expression. America’s legal system evolved from English Common Law, which set a rather low standard for the prosecution of publishers of libelous material, who could be jailed for material that damaged the reputation of a member of the community. In 1734 New York publisher John Peter Zenger was imprisoned for printing political attacks against the colonial governor of New York. However, his lawyer established a new legal precedent by arguing successfully that truth was a proper defense in libel cases. Prior to that, truth of allegedly libelous statements was not relevant to whether libel had been committed. Since the Zenger case, however, someone can sue successfully for libel only if the defamatory information is proven to be false.
Since the 1964 Supreme Court ruling in the case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, “public officials no longer could sue successfully for libel unless reporters or editors were guilty of ‘actual malice’ when publishing false statements about them…. Retired Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., who wrote the Sullivan decision, defined it as ‘knowledge that the [published information] was false’ or that it was published ‘with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.’ In other words, public officials no longer could sue for libel simply by proving that something that had been broadcast or printed about them was false. Now they would have to prove that a journalist had knowingly printed false information while making little, if any, attempt to distinguish truth from lies.” Egypt obviously has a different balance between conflicting rights in mind.
Even in the United States, freedom of speech is under constant attack from within. Columnist George Will, with his usual flare for sarcasm reports on bone chilling attempts by North Carolina’s Board of Dietetics/Nutrition to stop Steve Cooksey from offering nutritional advice on his internet blog based on his personal experience with losing 75 pounds. They argue that he does not have a license to offer such advice (hopefully the self interested protection of the right of only their members to offer such advice doesn’t need to be explained).
Finding the best balance between free and acceptable speech is an ongoing quest and different societies, even the same society at different points in its history, define it differently. I, like most of my countrymen and our constitution, believe that we have very good and compelling reasons to tightly limit exceptions to and limits on free speech to the minimum. In defending this view to others, we must respect that they may prefer a different balance, while at the same time explaining the reasons for our view.
That said, the quality of any society also depends on what actually gets said. A society in which most residents adhere to the values of mutual respect and make public pronouncements that are thoughtful and well meaning is clearly a more desirable one that where many are rude and thoughtless and speak hatefully. But the freedom of all members of society to speak freely is, in my view, is the best way to develop a thoughtful and civil society.
Anne Gearan, “Egypt’s president Morsi tells UN insults to Muhammad unacceptable” The Washington Post, September 27 Page A2.
 William Booth, “Egyptian blogger Alber Saber’s arrest shows differences over freedom of speech” The Washington Post, September 27, 2012, page A9