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In the Name of Tolerance: Free Speech under Siege

Ever since the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791, there have been people trying their hardest to come up with reasons why these important amendments to the U.S. Constitution really don’t mean what they seem to mean. The First Amendment, with its insistence that the rights of free speech never be abridged, has been a particularly popular target for these revisionists, who have come up with many creative ideas over the years to try and justify placing restrictions on at least some people’s freedom to express themselves.

While most of these efforts to get us to ignore our most fundamental rights as Americans have come from within our own borders, the forming of the United Nations, as well as other international bodies such as the World Treaty Organization, has given international actors an opening to potentially influence the course of events in nations other than their own, including this one. This reality has encouraged alliances of nation-states to try and use the UN to promote their collective agendas many times over the years, and the most recent example of this dynamic in action is the move by the UN’s Organization of Islamic Cooperation to convince its fellow member states to pass UN Resolution 16/18.

Resolution 16/18 and the Devil in the Details

Resolution 16/18, using language drafted by an alliance of the Islamic states that comprise the membership of the OIC, condemns “any advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence,” while calling on all UN member states to “speak out against intolerance, including religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence.”

Most of the language of the document is similar to this, which perhaps explains why so many UN member nations – including the United States – and international human rights organizations have pledged to support this new resolution. But what is causing controversy and alarm is one particular clause in this initiative, specifically clause 5(f), which calls on other UN member states to “adopt measures to criminalize incitement to imminent violence based on religion or beliefs.” In other words, if someone is expressing ideas that could somehow encourage others to take violent actions of any sort, the OIC is asking other nations to pass laws making such speech a criminal offense, subject to prosecution. The main reason nations from the Islamic world have given for supporting such a resolution is because of their alleged concern about Muslim people who have been the victims of hate crimes in nations around the world, especially in the time since 9/11. Many suspect, however, that what they are really doing is trying to curry favor with the religious fundamentalist groups that reside within their own borders.

Greasing the Slippery Slope

U.S. government representatives have defended their support for this restrictive resolution by pointing out that the language of clause 5(f) will not be interpreted in a way that is in contradiction to past legal precedent in this country. In the 1969 Supreme Court case Brandenburg v. the State of Ohio, the justices ruled that the only type of speech that would not be protected by the First Amendment would be direct calls for violent acts to be perpetrated against targeted individuals or groups within an imminent time frame – language that is quite reminiscent of clause 5(f), which may not be accidental since getting US support for this resolution has been considered critical by the OIC all along.

But facile reassurances such as this aside, the international climate has clearly been evolving in a direction that is more repressive and less tolerant of speech that offends the sensibilities of certain groups. For example, many European nations, as well as our neighbors to the north in Canada, have made it a form of illegal hate speech to deny the reality of the Holocaust. And perhaps the OIC has been encouraged in their efforts by the fact that several European nations have already prosecuted and convicted dozens of individuals for the crime of defamation and hate speech because of criticisms they have made about certain Islamic practices and some tenets of the Islamic faith.

It is important to note that none of the people charged with these hate speech crimes has ever been linked to any documented outbreaks of violence against Muslim peoples living within the borders of the nations that have prosecuted them. Nevertheless, using the amorphous language that is contained in clause 5(f) of this new UN resolution, just about anything that seems negative or critical on a topic that causes people to react passionately could be seen as potentially inciting violence, since there are a lot of volatile people out there and we can never know exactly how they might react to things they see, hear, or read. With Islam, or any other religion for that matter, the problem is compounded further by the fact that fundamentalists and fanatics who subscribe to these religious beliefs could perhaps react violently, or put out calls for violence, based on the flimsiest of provocations (i.e. the Salman Rushdie incident). So while the whole slippery slope argument can at times be exaggerated, in this instance it is not hard to see that in a climate where free speech is already being compromised by those who think they know better, something like UN Resolution 16/18 can only help to reinforce these disturbing trends.

More is Better Than Less:  In Defense of Free Speech

As for the United States, this country has generally been more resistant to attempts to limit people’s freedom of speech, which is why we have no laws banning Holocaust denial, or anyone being prosecuted for making anti-Islam statements. Here, we have usually recognized that the best remedy for offensive speech is not less freedom of speech, but more of it – let people have as much freedom and opportunity as they would like to promote their ideas, just as long as everyone else has the same freedom and opportunity to refute those ideas when they are filled with inaccuracies or bigotry. But can anyone guarantee that our commitment to protecting freedom of speech and expression will remain as strong in the future as it has been in the past? If there is nothing to worry about here, then the question has to be asked: why did our government decide to support this new resolution in the first place, knowing the kind of deleterious effect such initiatives might ultimately have on respect for freedom of expression in general throughout the world?

Even from the standpoint of the groups that support anti-hate speech laws, or anti-incitement resolutions, these types of initiatives may have some unintended effects. Laws prohibiting denial of the Holocaust have convinced many that there is something there to hide, and as a result Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism have probably been fueled rather than repressed by the passage of these laws in so many countries. Islam is already seen by many as a religion that promotes intolerance, and attempting to silence criticism by using such a vague rationale as “incitement to imminent violence” as a hammer will only strengthen that impression in the mind of many. So no matter what angle you approach it from, laws and resolutions that strike at the core of free speech are a bad idea, and it is extremely unfortunate that the US government has chosen to support a UN resolution that is clearly going to take us in the wrong direction.

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