Limits of Freedom

Some Western pundits are wringing their hands, lamenting that a war is raging against freedom of speech in the UN General Assembly. In effect they are accusing Muslim leaders like President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of battling against freedom of speech.

What the president did was to propose the development of an international instrument that would prevent the unbridled defamation of any religion, and serve as a reference point for all countries in dealing with this problem. He proposed that in a speech before the UN General Assembly. That speech doesn’t qualify as a declaration of war against freedom of speech.

Nor did Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby declare war against freedom of speech when he — much more directly — called for criminalizing acts that insult or cause offense to religions.

No war against freedom of speech is raging in the United Nations. And the call to arms to defend it is just a lot of dramatics in the Western media. What has been taking place in the UN Human Rights Council — for several years now — is an attempt to synergize the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with those of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

One provides that the right to hold opinions is a non-derogable human right. The other would combat xenophobia (an irrational fear and hatred of people from other countries) and related intolerance, including but not limited to Islamophobia (irrational fear and hatred of Muslims).

The task of strengthening and clarifying the provisions of the two conventions has been going on for years — it’s moving at a snail’s pace. The only reason for the burst of new interest in the activity is the violent impact of the malicious YouTube video “Innocence of Muslims.” So far, some 20 individuals, including the highly revered American diplomat John Christopher Stevens, have lost their lives in the riots and deliberate attacks by militants in the Muslim world that one lousy amateur film provoked.

US President Barack Obama took time from his re-election campaign to join the UN General Debate with a professorial elucidation of the American view of freedom of speech. He argued that without constitutional protection the right of individuals to express their views would be threatened. That was, of course, more thoughtful than his rival Mitt Romney’s knee-jerk reaction to the attack against the US consulate in Benghazi. Both based their positions on the First Amendment to the US constitution. Both were mistaken.

Freedom of speech is never absolute. Time and again the US Supreme Court has decided that a particular exercise of this freedom is not protected by the First Amendment. Even the most passionate advocate of the First Amendment, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. never claimed that freedom of speech is absolute. He himself said that the First Amendment does not protect speech that leads to “a clear and present danger.” True, he theorized that time and debate would eventually dissipate the harm that could be wreaked by irresponsible speech. That’s what President Obama meant when he said the only cure to bad speech is more speech.

But Justice Holmes held court before the era of radio and TV. He couldn’t have imagined the power of the Internet to drive people to insane rage. And how a bloodthirsty mob could gather within hours after an insult on Facebook or Twitter. “Clear and present danger” today is instantaneous.

Today there are dictators and military juntas waging war against freedom of speech, but they cannot wage it in the UN with its Universal Declaration on Human Rights and its Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. What can and should be done in the UN is to define the reasonable limits of that freedom. And it’s being done excruciatingly slow.

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