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Freedom of Speech, A Quaint Civil Liberty

Ever hear of Theo van Gogh? Ayaan Hirsi Ali? Based on conversations with random people at coffee, sandwich, and ice cream shops it seems many Americans don’t really remember or know these names. Understandable, but if I asked if they remembered a Dutch movie director murdered because of a movie he made – then there was a fuzzy recollection. Theo van Gogh directed the movie Submission which was written by Hirsi Ali, who was essentially exiled though he was a member of parliament. This happened in the Netherlands in 2004 I believe, and is by now considered “ancient history.”

The Netherlands was once considered one of the most tolerant countries in Europe. Enter the EU and its notions of free speech, notions that our left is increasingly advocating for consumption here in the United States. Both the American Spectator’s (AS) Roger Scruton and The Weekly Standard’s (TWS) Christopher Caldwell had articles on the February refusal of the UK, “on the advice of Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary,” (AS) to grant Geert Wilders, a member of the Dutch Parliament, entry to the UK to show his film Fitna. Why comment on free speech? I write about free speech because “we the people” seem to be increasingly constrained in our speech by our government in direct violation of our first amendment rights. Take a look through the new hate crimes legislation that was attached to a defense bill by House Democrats, it’s just a little bit like limiting thought and speech.

Those two articles are worth the read, but if you don’t, here are a couple of entries that reflect the content of the articles:

But free speech is not about permitting only those voices of which you approve. It is about understanding your own beliefs and the beliefs of those who disagree with you. It is about creating the public space in which truth and falsehood can openly contend for their following. Free speech is critical to all the other freedoms that we enjoy, and the impulse to defend it—and in particular to defend the free speech of those with whom you disagree, of whom you disapprove, or who have been targeted by some mob or faction determined to silence them—is proof of the democratic spirit. (AS)

…the British government has grown less interested in freedom. After the July 2005 transport bombings, and even more after the foiled airplane plot of the following summer, the government said so explicitly. “Traditional civil liberty arguments,” said Tony Blair, “are not so much wrong as just made for another age.” Since then, 270 people have been refused admission to Britain on grounds of sowing hate. Only four of these have been Europeans. This kind of disparate impact must leave Jacqui Smith feeling she has little to apologize for in banning Wilders.

The new European conception of freedom of speech, based on anti-racism, protects a lot less speech than did the old British and Dutch conceptions of freedom of speech, based on sovereignty. Maybe membership in the family of man relieves one of a certain amount of worry about the liberties of one’s fellow citizens. (TWS)

Do we, as American citizens, really believe that traditional civil liberty arguments are anachronistic? I certainly hope not. It saddens me when the ACLU is more apt to defend free speech than post-secondary academia:

Many universities, under pressure to respond to the concerns of those who are the objects of hate, have adopted codes or policies prohibiting speech that offends any group based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

That’s the wrong response, well-meaning or not. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content. Speech codes adopted by government-financed state colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution. And the ACLU believes that all campuses should adhere to First Amendment principles because academic freedom is a bedrock of education in a free society.

Jeff, a commenter on the post Hate Crime Legislation is sooo Useful, made several keen observations about hate crime legislation – but he summed it up nicely:

Hate crime legislation is simply an attempt to control ideas and limit speech. It was passed by guilty consciences to raise up a stereotyped cartoon of downtrodden masses. It’s race law.

Seems like a bummer that our representatives in congress would actively seek to violate our civil rights in this underhanded way. My father has a tag line at the end of his emails I like: Polite, yes.  Politically Correct – don’t hold your breath. Though I would like to quote J.S. Mill from On Liberty, I’ll save that for some other rant because I’d rather end on a humorous note. I’m lousy at written humor – I just don’t have the chops. However, for a great ending to this post, P.J. O’Rourke emailed a little bit to the Scrapbook, a section of The Weekly Standard that addresses just this issue. Since I couldn’t seem to find it on line, it’s the APRIL 13 / APRIL 20, 2009 issue, and as it’s a relatively short little screed here’s all of it (with my sincere hopes this is perfectly ok):

The U.N. Human Rights Council —with the championing of human rights led by delegates from Belarus, Venezuela and Pakistan—has passed a resolution urging countries around the world to make “defamation of religion” illegal. Given the Obama administration’s desire for closer cooperation with the U.N., those laws may be on the books in America by the time you read this. But we will defy Attorney General Eric Holder and the fearsome weapons of the U.N.’s black helicopters enforcing his writ. Herewith a last stand for the defamatory rights of free speech:

How many Episcopalians attend church on Sunday? Fore.

What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Unitarian? Someone who goes door-to-door for no reason.

Hey, Presbyterians, if everything is predestined by God, how come the tornado blew your double-wide to God-knows-where?

What caused the Catholic priest to have a sex change? Altar girls.

Then there was the Baptist congregation that put up a sign, “CH_RCH What’s Missing?” And they spent all week trying to figure it out.

Why was the Dalai Lama reincarnated as a compulsive gambler? So he’d get Tibet.

Did you hear about the dyslexic Hindu who had 47,000 dogs?

What do you get if you call a Sikh a reckless, insane maniac? A taxi.

And what’s the difference between Jews and Muslims? A profit.

Cheers all.

  1. Jeff
    July 21st, 2009 at 12:14 | #1

    We don’t have free speech in this country any more, if we ever had it to begin with. In fact, you have to be very careful with every word you speak lest you find yourself on the business end of the racist labeling bazooka. Case in point: “I told you boys we’re on quiet time, now stop talking,” was said on a juvenile detention unit to a collection of 15 male juveniles. The sole black juvenile wrote a grievance to the administration for being called “boy.” The staff member in question recieved two ‘unofficial reprimands,’ one from immediate supervisors and then another from detention center administration. Both suggested he be more ‘culturally sensitive’ to the residents in what he described as a threatening tone. For this to occur, a systemic acceptance of what white people can and cannot say has to be embraced organizationally. Apparently, it has. As a side note, it is not out of the ordinary to hear black staff members address black residents they have a good rapport with as “n—a.” I’m even scared to type it…

  2. July 23rd, 2009 at 22:47 | #2

    “L–ns, and ti—s, and bears, OH MY!” Ummm, I can still say “bears” right? Dodging the labeling bazooka can be pretty difficult in normal conversation these days!

    I read your response to my family and their collective jaws dropped in astonishment – except for my wife, who happens to work in women’s corrections. Sheesh.

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