Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Free Speech

Yesterday four US embassy employees were killed when Muslims rioted.  The rioters were incensed at a YouTube video that dissed Mohammed and Islam, presumably posted by someone from the United States.

When I heard the story I thought, could somebody please explain to the rioters what free speech means in the United States?  I'm sure I am not the right person to write a blog about free speech but I decided that it wouldn't hurt for me to think through what I believe.

What Free Speech Means:
  • People are allowed to say things even if it will be offensive.
  • Even foul language is protected in most instances.
  • Criticizing individuals, gods, prophets and religious beliefs is allowed.

What Free Speech Doesn't Mean:
  • People are allowed to tell specific lies about living individuals (slander).
  • People are allowed to write specific lies about living individuals (libel).
  • All Americans agree with what an individual is saying while exercising his or her free speech rights.
  • It certainly doesn't mean that all or even many Americans agree with the individual who created the video. 

If someone believes he has been harmed due to slanderous or libelous statements, the individual can sue the person or entity that made the statements and the courts will decide if the action was illegal and what, if any, penalty applies.

If someone believes that an individual or entity has made offensive statements there may be a violation of US laws provided the statements were broadcast and therefore subject to regulations under the FCC.

In the vast majority of instances; however, the offensive comments are truly an individual exercising his or her right to free speech.  If someone finds that speech offensive, there is virtually no action available to the offended person to stop or limit the individual exercising his or her free speech rights.  Rather, the offended person can simply leave the area, not watch the video, etc.

Free speech is an important right in the United States.  Given my choice, I would keep the law as it is and allow the offensive comments rather than restrict speech.  (Although I do disagree with the recent Supreme Court decision that said that corporations and other non-individual entities had the same free speech rights, including using money in campaigns, as individuals.)

It seems to me that one of the largest cultural differences between the United States and much of the rest of the world is the idea of free speech and the ability to freely exercise that right.  It is critical to the liberty we enjoy as Americans and deeply embedded in our culture.  That is why I may be disgusted with the creator of the YouTube video but I would not call him or her a murderer.  That designation goes to the individual who chose to take the life of an embassy employee.

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