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Why we should honor the rights of those we loathe to speak freely

For quite some time now the United States, you know, the Land of the Free, hasn’t been living up to its reputation as the defender of Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press quite as much as it ought to.

Shortly after 9/11 in a rush of patriotic fervor and paranoia we rammed through the Patriot Act, which put serious constraints on privacy—and because of the assumption that everyone’s business is subject to government snooping, including what library books they check out—has had a dampening effect on the inclination of people to express themselves freely.

Most people give lip service to the notion of Freedom of Speech, but usually say there are exceptions and I don’t just mean the ones we all agree on, like not being able to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. For instance, many people agree with militant Moslems who say that we shouldn’t allow criticism of a religion or to make fun of it. That’s Pope Francis’s stance, and while I would expect that from the leader of the largest church in the world, still, it is disappointing. However, I would expect better of high ranking U.S. politicians and, unfortunately on this issue, we tend to see the craven side of our leaders, including the president.

Our former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, whom many believe will be elected president of the United States in 2016, two years ago eroneously blamed the Bengazi slayings of our diplomatic staff in Bengazi, Libya on a video of the prophet Mohammed that had been created by an American citizen. She consoled the parents of one of the men killed by promising to have to producer and director of the film “arrested” and “put in jail.” This was eventually done. The last time I checked, it is not illegal in the U.S. to produce a film that mocks the prophet of a religion. That right is protected by the First Amendment.

It would have been nice for the Secretary of State to have defended the rights of anyone to make a film, no matter who it offends, instead of seeking to have that person clapped behind bars.

You may or may not care whether someone makes a film attacking a particular religion. I personally believe that a religion ought to be strong enough and sure enough of its beliefs to let satire, humor, invective and other attacks slide off it like a duck’s back. The point of Freedoms such as that of Speech and the Press is not that people you agree with are allowed to have their say. The point is that people we loathe and detest have the right to say whatever they want without the fear of reprisal or arrest.

Or as George Orwell put it, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

But what about speech that “offends” you? Don’t you have the right not to have to watch or listen to things that are unfair, bigoted, racist or just plain stupid?

No. You don’t. Well, you do in that you have the right to turn off the television, shut down your computer, turn away from the billboard and even get into an animated argument with the person espousing those offensive views, but you don’t have the right to tell them to sit down and shut up.

Let me end this with a fairly extensive statement by Stephen King: “If there’s one American belief I hold above all others, it’s that those who would set themselves up in judgment on matters of what is ‘right’ and what is “best” should be given no rest; that they should have to defend their behavior most stringently. … As a nation, we’ve been through too many fights to preserve our rights of free thought to let them go just because some prude with a highlighter doesn’t approve of them.”

*Note: Opinions expressed by columnists and letter writers are those of the writers and not necessarily those of the newspaper.

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