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Shut Up and Play Nice: How the Western World is Limiting Free Speech

Free speech is dying in the Western world. While most people still enjoy considerable freedom of expression, this right, once a near-absolute, has become less defined and less dependable for those espousing controversial social, political or religious views. The decline of free speech has come not from any single blow but rather from thousands of paper cuts of well-intentioned exceptions designed to maintain social harmony.(Brian Stauffer for The Washington Post)

In the face of the violence that frequently results from anti-religious expression, some world leaders seem to be losing their patience with free speech. After a video called “Innocence of Muslims” appeared on YouTube and sparked violent protests in several Muslim nations last month, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned that “when some people use this freedom of expression to provoke or humiliate some others’ values and beliefs, then this cannot be protected.”

It appears that the one thing modern society can no longer tolerate is intolerance. As Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard put it in her recent speech before the United Nations, “Our tolerance must never extend to tolerating religious hatred.”

A willingness to confine free speech in the name of social pluralism can be seen at various levels of authority and government. In February, for instance, Pennsylvania Judge Mark Martin heard a case in which a Muslim man was charged with attacking an atheist marching in a Halloween parade as a “zombie Muhammed.” Martin castigated not the defendant but the victim, Ernie Perce, lecturing him that “our forefathers intended to use the First Amendment so we can speak with our mind, not to piss off other people and cultures — which is what you did.”

Of course, free speech is often precisely about pissing off other people — challenging social taboos or political values.

This was evident in recent days when courts in Washington and New York ruled that transit authorities could not prevent or delay the posting of a controversial ad that says: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat jihad.”

When U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer said the government could not bar the ad simply because it could upset some Metro riders, the ruling prompted calls for new limits on such speech. And in New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority responded by unanimously passing a new regulation banning any message that it considers likely to “incite” others or cause some “other immediate breach of the peace.”

Such efforts focus not on the right to speak but on the possible reaction to speech — a fundamental change in the treatment of free speech in the West. The much-misconstrued statement of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes that free speech does not give you the right to shout fire in a crowded theater is now being used to curtail speech that might provoke a violence-prone minority. Our entire society is being treated as a crowded theater, and talking about whole subjects is now akin to shouting “fire!”

The new restrictions are forcing people to meet the demands of the lowest common denominator of accepted speech, usually using one of four rationales.

Speech is blasphemous

This is the oldest threat to free speech, but it has experienced something of a comeback in the 21st century. After protests erupted throughout the Muslim world in 2005 over Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, Western countries publicly professed fealty to free speech, yet quietly cracked down on anti-religious expression. Religious critics in France, Britain, Italy and other countries have found themselves under criminal investigation as threats to public safety. In France, actress and animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot has been fined several times for comments about how Muslims are undermining French culture. And just last month, a Greek atheist was arrested for insulting a famous monk by making his name sound like that of a pasta dish.

Some Western countries have classic blasphemy laws — such as Ireland, which in 2009 criminalized the “publication or utterance of blasphemous matter” deemed “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion.” The Russian Duma recently proposed a law against “insulting religious beliefs.” Other countries allow the arrest of people who threaten strife by criticizing religions or religious leaders. In Britain, for instance, a 15-year-old girl was arrested two years agofor burning a Koran.

Western governments seem to be sending the message that free speech rights will not protect you — as shown clearly last month by the images of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the YouTube filmmaker, being carted away in California on suspicion of probation violations. Dutch politician Geert Wilders went through years of litigation before he was acquitted last year on charges of insulting Islam by voicing anti-Islamic views. In the Netherlandsand Italy, cartoonists and comedians have been charged with insulting religion through caricatures or jokes.

Even the Obama administration supported the passage of a resolution in the U.N. Human Rights Council to create an international standard restricting some anti-religious speech (its full name: “Combating Intolerance, Negative Stereotyping and Stigmatization of, and Discrimination, Incitement to Violence and Violence Against, Persons Based on Religion or Belief”). Egypt’s U.N. ambassador heralded the resolution as exposing the “true nature” of free speech and recognizing that “freedom of expression has been sometimes misused” to insult religion.

At a Washington conference last yearto implement the resolution, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton declared that it would protect both “the right to practice one’s religion freely and the right to express one’s opinion without fear.” But it isn’t clear how speech can be protected if the yardstick is how people react to speech — particularly in countries where people riot over a single cartoon. Clinton suggested that free speech resulting in “sectarian clashes” or “the destruction or the defacement or the vandalization of religious sites” was not, as she put it, “fair game.”

Given this initiative, President Obama’s U.N. address last month declaring America’s support for free speech, while laudable, seemed confused — even at odds with his administration’s efforts.

Speech is hateful

In the United States, hate speech is presumably protected under the First Amendment. However, hate-crime laws often redefine hateful expression as a criminal act. Thus, in 2003, the Supreme Court addressed the conviction of a Virginia Ku Klux Klan member who burned a cross on private land. The court allowed for criminal penalties so long as the government could show that the act was “intended to intimidate” others. It was a distinction without meaning, since the state can simply cite the intimidating history of that symbol.

Other Western nations routinely bar forms of speech considered hateful. Britain prohibits any “abusive or insulting words” meant “to stir up racial hatred.” Canada outlaws “any writing, sign or visible representation” that “incites hatred against any identifiable group.” These laws ban speech based not only on its content but on the reaction of others. Speakers are often called to answer for their divisive or insulting speech before bodies like the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.

This month, a Canadian court ruled that Marc Lemire, the webmaster of a far-right political site, could be punished for allowing third parties to leave insulting comments about homosexuals and blacks on the site. Echoing the logic behind blasphemy laws, Federal Court Justice Richard Mosley ruled that “the minimal harm caused . . . to freedom of expression is far outweighed by the benefit it provides to vulnerable groups and to the promotion of equality.”

Speech is discriminatory

Perhaps the most rapidly expanding limitation on speech is found in anti-discrimination laws. Many Western countries have extended such laws to public statements deemed insulting or derogatory to any group, race or gender.

For example, in a closely watched case last year, a French court found fashion designer John Gallianoguilty of making discriminatory comments in a Paris bar, where he got into a cursing match with a couple using sexist and anti-Semitic terms. Judge Anne-Marie Sauteraud read a list of the bad words Galliano had used, adding that she found (rather implausibly) he had said “dirty whore” at least 1,000 times. Though he faced up to six months in jail, he was fined.

In Canada, comedian Guy Earle was charged with violating the human rights of a lesbian couple after he got into a trash-talking session with a group of women during an open-mike night at a nightclub. Lorna Pardysaid she suffered post-traumatic stress because of Earle’s profane language and derogatory terms for lesbians. The British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal ruled last year that since this was a matter of discrimination, free speech was not a defense, and awarded about $23,000 to the couple.

Ironically, while some religious organizations are pushing blasphemy laws, religious individuals are increasingly targeted under anti-discrimination laws for their criticism of homosexuals and other groups. In 2008, a minister in Canada was not only forced to pay fines for uttering anti-gay sentiments but was also enjoined from expressing such views in the future.

Speech is deceitful

In the United States, where speech is given the most protection among Western countries, there has been a recent effort to carve out a potentially large category to which the First Amendment would not apply. While we have always prosecuted people who lie to achieve financial or other benefits, some argue that the government can outlaw any lie, regardless of whether the liar secured any economic gain.

One such law was the Stolen Valor Act, signed by President George W. Bush in 2006, which made it a crime for people to lie about receiving military honors. The Supreme Court struck it down this year, but at least two liberal justices, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, proposed that such laws should have less of a burden to be upheld as constitutional. The House responded with new legislation that would criminalize lies told with the intent to obtain any undefined “tangible benefit.”

The dangers are obvious. Government officials have long labeled whistleblowers, reporters and critics as “liars” who distort their actions or words. If the government can define what is a lie, it can define what is the truth.

For example, in February the French Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a law that made it a crime to deny the 1915 Armenian genocide by Turkey — a characterization that Turkey steadfastly rejects. Despite the ruling, various French leaders pledged to pass new measures punishing those who deny the Armenians’ historical claims.

The impact of government limits on speech has been magnified by even greater forms of private censorship. For example, most news organizations have stopped showing images of Muhammad, though they seem to have no misgivings about caricatures of other religious figures. The most extreme such example was supplied by Yale University Press, which in 2009 published a book about the Danish cartoons titled “The Cartoons That Shook the World” — but cut all of the cartoons so as not to insult anyone.

The very right that laid the foundation for Western civilization is increasingly viewed as a nuisance, if not a threat. Whether speech is deemed imflammatory or hateful or discriminatory or simply false, society is denying speech rights in the name of tolerance, enforcing mutual respect through categorical censorship.

As in a troubled marriage, the West seems to be falling out of love with free speech. Unable to divorce ourselves from this defining right, we take refuge instead in an awkward and forced silence.