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.

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