Free Speech, Intentional Offense and Human Decency

U.S. Supreme Court building.

U.S. Supreme Court building. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Mowahid Hussain Shah

Avoiding intentional offense to others is the hallmark of civility and civilised behaviour – a test routinely failed by many self-proclaimed civilised societies. It is a world in turmoil. Sparked by an ugly film, pent-up grievances are converging and erupting into a volcanic rage.

The 2006 cartoon controversy was a wake-up call on the perils of crossing red lines. It was a call that slumbering Muslim elites did not heed. The red lines are now being crossed with increasing frequency.

It is passive and defeatist to depict the 1.5 billion Muslims as mere victims. Among the hidden culprits are the supine Muslim elites, who have seldom failed to embarrass themselves on the global stage. Their full-time vocation – at state expense – is chair-preservation. Much of the energy and treasury of the state – with the acquiescence of key segments of civil society – is being expended on the survival and sustenance of a crumbling non-performing status quo.

The installing of dummy ‘leaders’ is designed to thwart the emergence of genuine and bona fide leadership. Chaos prevails when moral authority is missing.

Freedom of speech is a false issue and a diversion. It is an issue of common human decency.

Absolute freedom of speech is a myth. Within the US, in a series of decisions extending back over 100 years, the US Supreme Court has ruled that certain speech is not protected. In a famous 1919 decision, Schenck v. United States, the Court articulated that speech may be constrained if it creates “a clear and present danger” of incitement to violence. The Court refined this test in 1969, in Brandenburg v. Ohio, which upheld freedom of speech, except where “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”

Just recently in the US, North Carolina has made it a crime, punishable by fines and probation, for students to post statements on the Internet that “intimidate or torment” teachers. And, according to the story (Steve Eder, “Teachers Fight Online Slams,” Wall Street Journal, September 18, 2012) nearly every US state has passed measures prohibiting students from bullying other students online.

Elsewhere in several bastions of democracy in Europe, including Belgium, France, Germany, and Austria, it is a crime to deny the Holocaust. British historian David Irving, for example, was convicted and imprisoned in 2006 in Austria for precisely this violation of the law.

There are those who stand to benefit in provoking a clash between Christians and Muslims, which threatens global harmony.

Obtuse policies of Washington itself are putting in jeopardy American lives and US interests.

Yes, the US Embassies can be fortified and made more secure, but, as former US Ambassador to Syria Edward Djerejian observed: “OK, we built a 16-foot wall, but there is such a thing as a 17-foot ladder.”

The video film has been a catalyst, which has unveiled America’s much-diminished moral stature. At the street level, it confirms a perception of Western bad faith. It bodes ill for the long-term outcome of America in Afghanistan. Simply put, you can’t ask and task others to confront extremism in their homes when you are unwilling to do so in your own home

The writer is Supreme Court Bar Attorney.This writing first appeared in The Nation newspaper on September 27, 2012

The views expressed by experts in the writings included in the Opinion section are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect editorial policy of MyGlobalCommunityToday.

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