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In Defense of Free Speech


Freedom of speech is essentially dying by the day here in the modern world.  Threats are real and slippery slope test cases have been piling up to where we must seriously address this issue if we are to avoid slipping into Orwellian double-speak and mandated speech stripped of unacceptable ideas.  For it is about the ideas, not the words themselves.  The words spoken are merely a fixed form that represents the underlying thoughts to be communicated.  Censoring out speech means censoring out ideas that one finds objectionable for whatever reasons.

And that’s unconstitutional.

Amendment One: 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.

This bad movie trailer, “The Innocence of Muslims,” essentially 14 minutes of terrible acting and visual effects with deliberately offensive situations and dubbed dialogue, is now being used as evidence in order to change the law of the land in the United States.  More than a few commentators have suggested that the United States clamp down on such expressions, as it may offend people.

So what?

Yes.  So what?  As the line goes, “Maybe you need to be offended.”

The answer to speech you disagree with is … (drum roll) … MORE SPEECH.  If people are in disagreement with the historical situation portrayed in that film, they have an opportunity to present their own case, their own historical evidence, their own version of the matter.  By rendering this topic to the realm of sacred cows, it would eliminate all dissenting discussion and ideas.

Who gets to decide then what the actual historical record is?

Who gets to decide how much we can question this dogmatic interpretation?

We don’t rewrite the U.S. Constitution based on the possibility that someone somewhere might be offended by something.  Nor should we.  That truly is akin to religious fundamentalism, to Sharia Law.  These are bedrock principles of our nation that are not negotiable, despite the endless assaults on freedom of expression, which we should be well aware of and actively oppose.

I don’t agree with the messages of that movie trailer, but in America we have a right to put the ideas out into the world without fear of government crackdown (at least we used to; we’re supposed to).  Other less free regimes and societies respond that what is good for their citizens should be enforced here as well.  Examples will follow.

What has been proposed, since time immemorial, is to create sacred cow issues around religion and – of course – Israel, whereby American citizens, previously protected by the First Amendment, would face legal repercussions for uttering unacceptable speech.  And that’s just plain unacceptable.  As an American, raised from birth on this notion of “freedom” which is beamed from every transmitter, you should find wholesale assaults on First Amendment “freedoms” to be problematic at the very least.  Once the framework for establishing sacred cows is put into practice, it is only a matter of time before the list of unacceptable ideas grows into an abomination that warps the very fabric of our culture.  I could argue that it is already happening.

In my days hanging out on the ACLU forums, we debated a lot of free speech issues.  These were the days of the “Communications Decency Act,” (1996) a patently unconstitutional law that was passed by the house and senate and signed by none-other-than William Jefferson Clinton.  The Act was immediately struck down by federal courts for infringing on citizen’s First Amendment rights.  But first it passed the congress.  Then the president’s desk.  It was blatantly unlawful in this country, and yet it passed without reservation.  That was a frightening moment, a watershed moment that could have gone either way.  It was clear then that unconstitutional laws could pass the congress and the president’s desk (ie. PATRIOT ACT).  Our rights were under attack and would continue to be, into the foreseeable future.  Like today.

One of the popular articles currently circulating on this topic is by “peace activist”, “radio commentator” and “columnist” Soraya Sepahpour-Ulrich.  She makes a quasi-legal case for quashing free speech in regard to Islam:

“There is a precedent to curbing free speech when deemed harmful.   In a landmark Supreme Court hearing — Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919) , the actions of Schenck, an anti-war individual who had printed and distributed leaflets in order to discourage enlisting servicemen, was not afforded protection under the First Amendment. The issue before the court was whether Schenck’s actions (words, expression) were protected by the free speech clause of the First Amendment.”

Of course this is a mind-numbingly terrible Supreme Court decision.  Such an assault on freedom of expression has scarcely had such glaring cases as this to point at.  How much damage resulted from prohibiting military recruits from hearing the arguments against going off to fight wars?  This is a fascistic ruling, in contravention of the spirit of the First Amendment, and should clearly be struck down, not praised and regurgitated.

Notably president Wilson himself campaigned on the platform of keeping the United States out of the war in Europe.  A deceit, a Big Lie.  This period is a dark stain on America where propaganda was institutionalized, financed by the government; surveillance of citizens was instituted; mail was opened; people were arrested for political crimes.  That a self-professed peace activist would cite this case in a positive light is a bit baffling.

The ruling itself was a so-called violation of the recently passed “Espionage Act” (1917).  Mailing flyers was now considered the trumped-up act of “conspiracy to obstruct the recruiting and enlistment service.”  Telling the people who would go kill, die and be maimed the truth about the war could now be considered a “conspiracy.”  This is a clear eradication of ideas that the government decided should not be spread.  This sort of mind-control could lead to good things in the world?  Seriously?

Soraya continues with another monumentally terrible development that should have all of California on the phone to the capitol, screaming into their ears:

“August 2012, California passed a resolution (House Resolution 35) against criticism of Israel. What is perhaps more revealing than the Resolution itself, is the desire and the power to curb “free speech” (read Resolution).”

This corruption has not yet been tested in the courts, and could likely be struck down, like the Communications Decency Act before it.  This bill creates a specially selected group and grants exceptional, extraordinary rules in relation to this group.  The law attempts to regulate speech on the campuses of California, whereby criticism of Israel is equated with anti-Semitism and officially condemned.

“(2) speakers, films, and exhibits sponsored by student, faculty, and community groups that engage in anti-Semitic discourse or use anti-Semitic imagery and language to falsely describe Israel, Zionists, and Jews, including that Israel is a racist, apartheid, or Nazi state…”

Granted, it doesn’t seem to apply if the “racist” or “apartheid” charge isn’t “falsely” applied.  So, perhaps former president Jimmy Carter can still talk about his book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid at the colleges of California. But then again, that isn’t particularly clear from this vague, broad wording that attempts to prohibit negative descriptions of the policies of a foreign country.  This is an example of the slippery slope continual chipping away at bedrock freedoms, here in the U.S.

What Soraya has revealed is the tendency to use bad precedents to enact more bad laws based on bad reasoning.

“Perhaps for the protestors [in the Middle East], it is hard to understand that the [American] President’s kill list allows the assassination of American individuals ” based merely on patterns of behavior ” yet he is not able to exercise power to curb speech denigrating Islam.  Why has there been no will to put a stop to these insults and the ensuing violence?”

Besides using Obama’s war crimes and felony murders as a legal precedent, Soraya brings up several other issues at once.  A little clarification is in order here.  Killing American citizens without due process is murder and an impeachable crime.  We should be clear on that, and not accept excuses to the contrary.  The constitution is very clear about due process, warrants, various amendments establishing the rights of the accused and the right to a fair trial.  Violating this is criminal.  We should not tolerate these abuses at all.

As for the “insults” and the “ensuing violence” these are obviously two different things.  Someone can insult without violence becoming the response.  Why is violence not the responsibility of the perpetrator of said violence? Why is the alleged culprit here only the one doing the insulting?  Standard legal norms place the blame for violence on those committing it.   Stretching such blame to others may work in an organized crime setting, where underlings are part of a conspiracy, a hierarchical organization that issues orders.  However, this linkage does not extend to such random connections as those who watch videos that someone else posted, the two having no personal connection whatsoever to one-another.  In no way is a movie trailer to be used as a causative factor in the perpetration of violence half a world away.  That has no basis in any law, as far as I am aware.

Further, there is quite a lot of evidence that the violence at the Benghazi, Libya embassy, and the murder of the American diplomats had nothing whatsoever to do with the film trailer at all, and was a coordinated military attack in revenge for the killing of Al Qaeda’s “number two” commander in June of this year – a Libyan.  Benghazi has been a seething cauldron of radical Islamist violence since the days when Qaddafi quite rightly told us so. These were casualties in an ongoing war, and quite unrelated to this free speech debate over a “film.”

If it was just Soraya Sepahpour-Ulrich, I may have not been inspired to respond.  But, we see other more notable figures pressing for a U.S. government crackdown on speech.  Of course the Muslim Brotherhood’s new president of Egypt, Mohammad Morsi, has weighed in on the film.  Morsi personally told Barack Obama to impose, “legal measures which will discourage those seeking to damage relations … between the Egyptian and American people.”  Another report quotes Morsi demanding “assurances from the U.S. government to prevent any infringement on the sacred.”  Arrest warrants have been issued in Egypt for the filmmaker, as well as for the pastor Terry Jones.  Some reports claim that the “blasphemy” charges carry the death penalty there.

One might expect such a response from Egypt, but from the Russian parliament?  Aleksey Pushkov, the Russian chairman of the Parliamentary Committee for Foreign Affairs has also weighed in on U.S. freedom of speech:

“This has nothing to do with freedom of speech. The freedom of speech is not covering a lot of other things that are considered banned in the West. Otherwise they would not be so eager in attempts to put Julian Assange in jail … Attacks on Islam and its sacred things – this is not the freedom of speech but the freedom of hatred …”

In fact it is most certainly a freedom of speech case.  Freedom of speech protects unpopular ideas, the views we oppose.  It is not selectively restrictive.  Pushkov’s point about Julian Assange is well taken, and there is no U.S. case against him that should stand.  Rumors of secret grand juries and, of course, the covert manipulation to get him on the false Swedish charges of “rape” are in play.  Assange is another case entirely, in a league of his own.

As for the “freedom of hatred”, we actually retain that right in the United States.  You can hate whomever you want.  Don’t believe me?  Post a Youtube video about anything.  You will be hated on.  The inverse, the outlawing of “hate” carries more problems than it solves.  You have the right to express your hatred, thus exposing your arguments to scrutiny in the light of day.  They can then be countered.  The resulting synthesis is understanding. To eliminate the bad ideas through government repression is to attempt to circumvent the natural debates and discussions that ideas carry.  Bad ideas can be refuted, not by the guillotine, but by presenting their antitheses. We call this civilization, and I’m for it.

Violence has erupted across the Middle East this week, and that’s unfortunate.  Is the motivation for this violence confined to the “Innocence of Muslims” film trailer?  Or are there myriad other factors involved?  Are sections of the Middle East pissed off about a lot more than bad Youtube videos?  I think the evidence is unequivocally going to support that thesis.

Let’s not get muddy in our thinking and accept that people are burning U.S. embassies solely because of this movie. It was not produced by the U.S. government, nor even by an American director.  The creator is Egyptian!

The U.S. though has been a perpetrator of violence, coercion, covert support and numerous machinations for a long, long time.  Engaged in war after war, sometimes covertly supporting these same groups that wish to burn U.S. embassies today, the foreign policies of the U.S.A. should take center stage here.  They are conflicted, scattershot, always intrusive and often destructive of entire societies (sanctions, bombing campaigns, including NATO’s extensive bombardment of Libya).  Imperial meddling tends to make a lot of enemies, and this number has steadily increased since the escalations 11 years ago essentially declared war on Islam.  U.S. military personnel routinely referred to Middle Easterners as “Hadjis”, “ragheads”  and even “sand niggers” as they decimated Iraq and Afghanistan.  Even torture, rape and murder were broadcast across the globe, as Americans at home turned the channel to something more lighthearted.

People saw and felt how Islamic populations were treated as compared to other populations, even here in the U.S. itself, where people of south Asian descent were summarily rounded up after 9/11.  In a move reminiscent of the rounding up of Japanese Americans in World War Two, the federal government pointedly imposed a racist us versus them dichotomy that persists to this day.

It’s far easier to discuss bad movies and how we should punish the bad filmmakers than to attempt to reconcile massive war crimes that span numerous countries and several administrations, both Republicrat and Demogogue.  But isn’t that how it always plays out?  You can’t talk about the bipartisan rampage.  You can’t call out where both the Dems and the Repugs agree in their imperial ambitions.  It’s better to focus on other issues, side issues like bad filmmakers and too much free speech.

Joe Giambrone is a filmmaker and author of Hell of a Deal: A Supernatural Satire. He edits The Political Film Blog, which welcomes submissions. polfilmblog at gmail.

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