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Freedom of speech

By Ms Kiran Rizvi

There has been a mention or two of the alleged ‘freedom of speech’ in USA, primarily in regard to the anti-Islam movie that attracted undue attention all over the world. While everything is to be taken in context, I felt that the subject needed some clarification after I read a piece on Viewpoint from an expatriate Pakistani professor residing in US. While I can understand that it is hard to comprehend this concept for people in Pakistan because the culture in the subcontinent is restrictive in nature, I certainly did not expect such odd sentiments from a person living in the US.

Freedom of speech is at the center of personal freedoms in the constitution of USA. While it is true that there are many intangible ways to restrict this freedom, by and large people are free to say whatever they feel like provided their words do not result in tangible loss of life or property, for example one cannot legally lie to sell a product etc. Even though uttering offensive words in public sphere can be devastating in many ways, there are no laws that would imprison, fine or punish the perpetrator at state penitentiaries. The debate, therefore, is what is/should be considered ‘offensive’.

Obviously there are some categories that everyone agrees on, when it comes to offensive language. This includes racist, sexist, slanderous and hateful language towards an individual or a group of people. So the question is what do people in US do if a person is found to have used offensive language in public? They can be fired from public or private posts, they can be stripped of their honors, their name can be smitten from the honorary rosters or in the absence of such distinctions, his business could be boycotted etc. There are many organizations that look after the interest of certain groups when it comes to monitoring the offensive language in public. Anti Defamation League comes to mind when we talk about monitoring and protesting anti-Semitism expressed around the world. Such organization use their political and economical power to make sure nothing that is redolent of anti-Jewish sentiments is forgiven in public media. Their contention is that “All it takes is one lie to reignite anti-Semitism”, ironically this heading is displayed on their website in relation to the ‘lie’ that Jews were behind the infamous anti-Islam movie.

People in USA react to hateful and offensive speech in many ways. It can either be used to evoke public disdain, thereby discrediting the perpetrator as a decent member of the society forcing him/her to retract his words or apologize. An example would be when Rush Limbaugh, a famous radio host used indecent remarks for a woman who spoke in favor of women’s health and abortion rights. Mr. Limbaugh had to apologize or face boycott from his sponsors and listeners. Another example was when a church decided to show up with anti-homosexual slogans at the funeral of a homosexual soldier, public disdain was used to characterize the church as an outlier and disgrace to civil society. Sometimes ignoring the events and not giving them enough coverage works too, for example when anti-zionist Jews in Bronx burn the Israeli flag to protest against policies of Israel, no coverage is given to those events, granted their protest is against government policies of Israel and not anti-Semitic in nature. However when a non-Jewish Texas politician, Larry Taylor, uses ‘jew’ as a verb to chide insurance companies, he ends up writing an apology letter to ADL and lose his public post.

Another extreme example of anti-religious expression in USA, in recent history, is ‘PissChrist’. While some Christians took the 1987 photograph of a plastic statue of Christ in artist’s own urine, as a symbol of what Christ’s message has been reduced to in modern times, others have taken it as a sign of disrespect and are outraged on its display in public and private galleries. This was especially disturbing because part of the funding to the artist Andres Serrano was allegedly tax payers’ dollars. There have been ‘death threats’ to the artist, gallery owners and others involved in this controversy but no state punishments have been meted  out to any of the parties involved in the name of ‘freedom of speech’. This whole incident, however, is mainly ignored by the media in recent years to the outrage of devout Christians who see more coverage on the anti-Islam movie than the PissChrist incident.

With freedom comes responsibilities, and yes, in USA you have the freedom to hate, but this hate is not free, it comes at a great economic or personal cost. The cost of freedom of speech depends on who exercised it against whom and in what capacity to gain what interest. The sentiment in Pakistan is that all religious defamation should be outlawed internationally so the sensitivities of devout followers of the religions are not perturbed in any way. However the problem is what is considered offensive to the followers of a religion. To some, a movie that has no resemblance to the story of Islam which uses a few names of the characters from Islamic history cannot be logically accepted as an insult to the religion; whereas not using the honorific ‘PBUH’ in front of Muhammad PBUH, may be seen as offensive to others. There is no point in passing unenforceable laws, and everyone already condemns the attack on any religion or race officially, so what can be done if a group feels unjustly targeted for slanders? There are many ways to combat such spewing of hatred and misinformation other than legislating against the act. Recently when NY subway authority, unable to oppose the petition made under ‘freedom of speech’, had to grudgingly put up anti-Islamic posters in the subway stations sponsored by a pro-Israel organization, another Jewish organization sought to combat this hateful act by putting up pro-Islamic posters instead. This is how US combats bigotry, it may not always be right or succeed in doing what it professes, but that is how it approaches the negative impacts of freedom of speech.

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