The Freedom of Speech

The majority-Muslim world is still on fire with reaction to a film (well, a crudely produced trailer for a film unlikely to actually ever exist) which purposefully pokes fun at their religion’s prophet. Many countries are in the process of instituting greater levels of regulation about similar types of speech. That is to say, freedom of speech is increasingly being limited along religious grounds.

A newly-democratic Tunisia is, at this very moment, trying to find its balance point. Where are the limits, within its borders, of free speech? Can the prophet of Islam be criticized, caricatured, used as the butt of jokes?

Many in industrialized democracies, both here and in Europe especially, see this as backward thinking, regressive, superstitious, un-modern. This criticism is, I believe, self-righteous and unfair.

Every single society I’ve ever been a part of, known of, or read or heard about for that matter has at least one thing in common: freedom of speech within that society is limited or regulated in some way.

Some examples of the limits of free speech in free societies:

In Denmark, known and often envied for freedoms afforded citizens, it is illegal for: “Any person [to] publicly or with the intention of disseminating … make a statement … threatening, insulting, or degrading a group of persons on account of their race, national or ethnic origin or belief.”

In France, individuals and media are generally free but subject to several significant exceptions, including prohibitions against “…incitement to hatred, discrimination, slander and racial insults,” xenophobia (including a specific prohibition against Holocaust denial), or hatred against people due to gender, sexual orientation or disability.

The Basic Federal Law of Germany affirms freedom of expression with the following exceptions:

  • Insults which do not respect human dignity
  • Malicious gossip, defamation
  • Hate speech against segments of the population and in a manner that is capable of disturbing the public peace (including racist agitation and anti-Semitism)
  • Holocaust denial, the use of symbols of unconstitutional organizations (e.g., the Swastika)
  • Disparagement of the Federal President, the state and its symbols
  • Rewarding and approving crimes, casting false suspicion
  • Insulting of faiths.

In addition, public outdoor assemblies must be registered beforehand. Assemblies at memorial sites are banned. Individuals and groups may be banned from assembling, especially those whose fundamental rights have been revoked and banned political parties.

In Greece, the Constitution makes it an offense for the press to insult the President of Greece as well as Christianity and any other religion recognized by the state.

In the United States, there are numerous oft-used exceptions to freedom of speech, including:

  • Obscenity
  • Defamation
  • Incitement to riot or imminent lawless action, fighting words
  • Fraud, speech covered by government granted monopoly (copyright), and speech integral to criminal conduct
  • Speech related to information decreed to be related to national security such as military and classified information

If there is a society in which speech is completely free and unregulated, I don’t know of it. All societies recognize that there are legitimate competing interests; to maintain a functioning society, there must be boundaries around free speech. Each society must (and does) decide for itself which interests need acknowledgment, which need protection.

Which brings us back to current events and reactions to them.

The desire of Tunisians to protect the image of their prophet is no different than prohibitions in, for example, Greece, in either intent or substance. And people of the Muslim world might therefore, I believe, fairly ask why the world’s industrial democracies can see fit to create judicial protections for the images of their precious presidents but believe Tunisians’ violent reactions to defamation of their prophet beyond the boundaries of modern, civilized behavior.

Hope for Renewables? Even the Slightest?

There may be a model for progress in renewable energy from a somewhat unexpected source.

I starting working seriously in what was then called alternative energy (now,most often, renewables) in the early 1980s. It was a moment of optimism or, more accurately, the end of a moment of optimism, some would say foolish optimism, about weaning western economies off complete reliance on fossil fuels. There were very advantageous tax credits for investment in non-fossil energy, like solar, wind, cogeneration and hydroelectric. The federal and state governments, even many local governments, were investing directly in projects, some pilots and some to full-scale.

As a staff member of a state agency in North Carolina in the 1980s, I remember running some financial analyses in which 55 percent of investment costs in a certain cogeneration project were returned in the form of first-year tax credits, both federal and state. Operating under those conditions, few projects were rejected. That was good, in a way, because a lot of generation capacity and infrastructure was built and a lot of new technologies were developed. But, of course, it wasn’t completely good, because some of those projects were not, as it turned out, the best use of resources.

In any event, there was significant interest in non-fossil energy development, there was substantial growth, new enterprises, significant investment, and projections of much more of the same.

Many of these non-fossil energy programs had started with characteristic super-seriousness in the Carter administration following the ‘moral equivalent of war’ speech to the nation, but fell into disrepute with the election of Ronald Reagan and were either unfunded or allowed to expire. And that, as they say, was pretty much that. Renewables have continued to grow in importance and scale, but at nowhere near the size or pace once forecasted.

In the intervening thirty years, or so, we in America have engaged in mostly ineffective and unproductive, finger-pointing, blaming and shaming Kabuki theater that passes for debate hereabouts. Renewable supporters pretty much directly accuse the mainstream oil and gas industry of orchestrating a money-fueled conspiracy to perpetuate our addiction to fossil fuels. Supporters of the fossil energy industry, including many government officials who still count on ‘big oil’ for contributions to both campaign and constituent economies, complain about undue environmental restrictions which prevent the country from effectively employing its domestic resources.

Result? Mistrust. Muddle. No progress. (By the way, my experience suggests the situation is much more nuanced than our national dialog suggests; people in the energy business aren’t necessarily evil and environmentalists waste a lot of air-time accusing them of being so.)

America might best look – as it often should for examples of how adults behave in matters of serious policy debates – to Europe for a way forward.

Günther Oettinger is the European Commission’s energy commissioner. And, although he was a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right party and himself a political conservative, he was won praise from Europe’s environmentalists for promoting a sensible way forward in promoting decarbonization, the use of non-fossil fuels to promote the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. He has also proposed comprehensive energy efficiency programs, funded by utility re-investment.

Oettinger has taken no little flak from his conservative colleagues back home but he has remained steadfast in moving the agenda forward because he thinks it is the right way forward for Europe. No blaming. No posturing. No demonizing.

Can you imagine an American conservative doing the same? Can you imagine one even publicly acknowledging the issue of carbon dioxide emissions much less taking on conservative colleagues to get something done on the issue?

We have so much to learn.