Oh, for the love of…
The divide in world opinion over what constitutes free speech will be on display again this week at the United Nations, where arguments over a proposed blasphemy law were an annual feature for a decade.
This time it is the global reaction to a YouTube video that disparages Islam’s prophet Muhammad that is sure to roil the meeting of the UN General Assembly.
Muslim leaders have vowed to discuss the offensive video from their UN platforms, sowing concern among free-speech activists of a fresh push toward an international law that would criminalise blasphemy.
Do I even need to say how absolutely vile this idea sounds? Even the article raises the question:
”Human rights are not about protecting religions; human rights are to protect humans,” [Courtney Radsch, program manager for the Global Freedom of Expression Campaign at the non-profit group Freedom House.] said. ”Who is going to be the decision-maker on deciding what blasphemy is?”
Since it appears that this latest push comes from the Middle East (thanks to that ridiculous anti-Muslim video released a few weeks ago), I’d like to take a moment to explain the First Amendment and the general idea of ‘free speech’ to the Middle East.
Over here in the United States, we have laws that protect a person’s right to express themselves. Their mode of expression — actions, artwork, speech, or the written word — doesn’t come into play at all. These laws allow American citizens to speak their mind and express their opinions without the fear of government reprisal.
Free speech laws do not criminalize objectionable opinions — including blasphemy. If they did, The Onion would have gotten shut down for blasphemy. I can walk into a nearby church and yell out the most blasphemous thing I could think of without worrying about the government putting me in prison.
These laws also make sure that the American government has little, if any, control over the substance of the population’s expressions. The government does not screen citizen expression before it becomes public; it has no say in the content of films, television shows, books, artwork, or most other creative endeavours.
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution also sets up the ideas of both ‘freedom of religion’ (a citizen can pursue any religious practice and belief, or none at all, so long as that pursuit does not break any laws) and ‘separation of church and state’ (the government does not endorse any one religion over all others as a ‘national’ religion, and the various religions generally stay out of governmental affairs).
The United States does have laws against defamation, as well as laws that punish people for intentionally and directly provoking violent action against another party (also known as ‘fighting words’). Acts of violence do not qualify as legally-protected expressions, either. But these laws — laws that Americans, by and large, hold dear to their hearts — do not protect people from feeling offended by the expression of another person.
As an example: I find it offensive that the United Nations wants to find a way to outlaw a form of speech that the United States has protected for as long as I’ve lived — but I can’t sue the United Nations for offending me, nor can I legally commit a violent act of retribution against any given member of the United Nations without getting arrested for it. I can only sit here and register my disgust at the idea of the UN telling me that it wants to make sure I can’t say ‘God sucks dicks in hell’ without committing an international crime.