Found on the editorial page of :
By William Saletan
Jews have too much influence over U.S. foreign policy. Gay men are too promiscuous. Muslims commit too much terrorism. Blacks commit too much crime.
Each of those claims is poorly stated. Each, in its clumsy way, addresses a real problem or concern. And each violates laws against hate speech. In much of what we call the free world, for writing that paragraph, I could be jailed.
Libertarians, cultural conservatives, and racists have complained about these laws for years. But now the problem has turned global. Islamic governments, angered by an anti-Muslim video that provoked protests and riots in their countries, are demanding to know why insulting the Prophet Mohammed is free speech but vilifying Jews and denying the Holocaust isn’t. And we don’t have a good answer.
If we’re going to preach freedom of expression around the world, we have to practice it. We have to scrap our hate-speech laws.
Muslim leaders want us to extend these laws. At this week’s meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, they lobbied for tighter censorship. Egypt’s president said freedom of expression shouldn’t include speech that is “used to incite hatred” or “directed towards one specific religion.” Pakistan’s president urged the “international community” to “criminalize” acts that “endanger world security by misusing freedom of expression.” Yemen’s president called for “international legislation” to suppress speech that “blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their figures.” The Arab League’s secretary-general proposed a binding “international legal framework” to “criminalize psychological and spiritual harm” caused by expressions that “insult the beliefs, culture and civilization of others.”
Much more at the link. Mr Saletan, a writer for the online journal Slate, the original of which can be found here, spends a good deal of time noting different treatment and different enforcement of various laws concerning verboten speech, and concludes that yes, the Muslims have a legitimate complaint, that speech which offends them is not treated in the same manner as speech which offends other groups. He noted convictions which were upheld by the European Court of Human Rights, versus those “rescued” by that court for convictions based on hate speech laws.
Though we haven’t spent any time on THE FIRST STREET JOURNAL discussing the various restrictions on speech in the other “first world” democracies, it was a subject to which your Editor paid some attention on the old site. Mr Saletan’s article does a fairly decent job noting differences in how such speech laws are enforced, and he praises President Obama’s statement at the United nations which was “a stout defense of free speech.”
But what he does a poor job of is noting the very great differences between freedom of speech in the United States, and the way in which freedom of speech is viewed in the other Western democracies. Some of our very democratic friends reared with European sensibilities may believe that some speech — such as Holocaust denial or otherwise offends or defames or insults people based on their race or ethnicity or sexual preferences or whatever — really should be restricted, and it is; people have actually gone to jail for Holocaust denailism. Mr Saletan noted just how unevenly such legal restrictions on speech have been applied.
We have a better way:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
It is simple, it is elegant, and it is wholly non-discriminatory: since we cannot restrict or ban speech, period, there is no chance of applying the law unevenly. We have, unfortunately, not been quite as pure as we might have been in the actual application of the First Amendment, and have, over the years, tried to restrict undesirable speech in all sorts of ways, starting with the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, through the expulsion of five Socialist members of the New York state assembly in 1920, through the Smith Act of 1940 up to the McCain-Feingold Restriction on Speech Act, more formally known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. It has taken some time, and the legal path has not always kept from veering off into the weeds, but eventually our Supreme Court has gotten pretty close to enforcing the actual words of the First Amendment, regardless of what some advocates believe should be restricted.
Mr Saletan is an American; your Editor wishes that he had taken just a bit more effort to point out the very significant differences between the restrictions on speech in the other Western democracies and the way we do things here.
Ours is the better way.