Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Meaning of Free Speech

The initial reaction to the attack on the Libyan consulate and the Egyptian embassy was misguided. The Egyptian embassy made a post to Twitter that essentially apologized for an obscure anti-Muslim movie that had been produced in America. This was followed by condemnations of the movie by the President and Secretary of State. They even bought air time in Pakistan to show ads disavowing the movie. In addition, the producer of the movie was taken in (at midnight) for questioning on possible parole violations and the government asked Google to consider removing the trailer for the movie.

The biggest problem with this response is that the attack in Libya which killed four Americans appears to have been an outright terrorist attack on the anniversary of 9/11 and not a reaction to a movie.

Regardless, the whole point of freedom of speech is that it is only free if people are able to say objectionable things. No one ever tries to stop people from saying things that they agree with. This is best illustrated by the quote attributed to Voltaire*, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

It took two weeks but President Obama finally got this sentiment right, at least in part. When addressing the UN he had this to say:

"Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views — even views that we disagree with," the president said. Without such freedom, he said, individuals might be stopped from practicing their own faith; "efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics or oppress minorities." He concluded: "Given the power of faith in our lives and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech."

This raises the question of what Obama actually believes? Does he actually believe that it is wrong to restrict speech or is he just reading words from a teleprompter? How does he reconcile this view with his earlier attempts at restricting speech?

* According to Wikipedia, this quote was actually written by a biographer of Voltaire, Evelyn Beatrice Hall as an illustration of Voltaire's beliefs. Regardless, it summarizes of freedom of speech better than any other quote.

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