Freedom of Expression

Obama defends free speech at United Nations

President Obama received some justified criticism for not defending free speech more strongly in response to the violence reaction of some Muslims to the notorious YouTube video mocking Islam.

But when he addressed the UN General Assembly today, I think he made the case for free expression as forcefully as he could:

I know there are some who ask why we don’t just ban such a video. And the answer is enshrined in our laws: Our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech.

Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs. As President of our country and Commander-in-Chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day — (laughter) — and I will always defend their right to do so.

Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views, even views that we profoundly disagree with. We do not do so because we support hateful speech, but because our founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views and practice their own faith may be threatened. We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities.

We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression; it is more speech — the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.

(As a non-believer, the term “blasphemy” makes me squirm. But Obama, as a believing Christian, is entitled to be offended by it while defending the rights of blasphemers to offend him.)

And has anyone noticed the violent reaction that mostly hasn’t followed the publication of the Mohammed cartoons by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo?

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