In the Hollywood version of the United States, President Andrew Shepherd explained the difficulty of the First Amendment:
“America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.’”
(From the National Archives)
Like President Shepherd in the 1995 movie The American President, we citizens of the United States of America pay homage to the First Amendment and its guarantee of freedom of speech. The language is so very simple: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech or of the press ….” But the concept is so very complex.
What most of us overlook is that the liberty of expression we cherish was never intended to protect popular ideas, the voice of the majority or the platitudes of the patriot. This constraint on our governors was inscribed on the tablets of our national constitution to serve as a sentry for the unpopular idea and a microphone for the voice of the minority and the rantings of the radicals.
Many Americans simply don’t get it. But then the new presidents of Egypt and Yemen and the president of Pakistan obviously don’t get it either. In speaking to the United Nations General Assembly Sept. 26, Yemeni President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi demanded limits on speech that insults religion, referring to the online video that Muslims contend mocked the Prophet Muhammad.
“These behaviors find people who defend them under the justification of the freedom of expression,” he said, according to The New York Times. “These people overlook the fact that there should be limits for the freedom of expression, especially if such freedom blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their figures.”
Mohamed Morsi of Egypt, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, spoke along similar lines. “Egypt respects freedom of expression, freedom of expression that is not used to incite hatred against anyone. We expect from others, as they expect from us, that they respect our cultural specifics and religious references, and not seek to impose concepts or cultures that are unacceptable to us,” according to The Times.
President Asif A. Zardari of Pakistan went further, demanding that insults to religion be treated as criminal acts. “The international community must not become silent observers and should criminalize such acts that destroy the peace of the world and endanger world security by misusing freedom of expression.”
It’s more than a little irritating to be lectured by leaders of countries where those who proclaim Christianity risk their lives. In Egypt, since the overthrow of President Mubarak in February 2011, attacks on Christians have increased and often go unprosecuted. The Voice of the Martyrs website reports that more than 200 were injured and 24 killed last October when the military fired on a peaceful protest by Coptic Christians seeking equal rights. Converts from Islam in Yemen, one of the world’s poorest countries, face the death penalty if discovered. The Voice of the Martyrs reports that Christians in Pakistan face constant threat from fundamentalist Muslims. “Muslim employers and neighbors frequently accuse Christians of crimes and blasphemy against Islam, and Christians are assumed guilty.”
I would never endorse mocking any religion. I am a man of faith, and I cringe when people mock God (He is not the man upstairs) or use the name of my Savior as a curse word. I am not a follower of Islam and I don’t agree with their tenets any more than they agree with mine. But I respect their right to believe as they do. I have a hard time understanding how mocking the prophet can be insulting to him, although I am sure it offends his followers. But if we passed laws making it a crime to use the name of Jesus as a curse word, we’d have to build jails faster than ice cream melts in July.
These leaders of predominantly Muslim countries are certain an American who mocks Islam should go to jail while their governments turn their heads when their countrymen murder and persecute Christians.
Americans who demand freedom for themselves sometimes aren’t happy about the way others exercise theirs. Consider the case of Hustler v. Falwell. Larry Flynt, owner of Hustler magazine, ran a parody of a liquor ad. It described Falwell as getting drunk in the pulpit and committing incest in an outhouse. Falwell and his Moral Majority were outraged; but the Supreme Court ruled the First Amendment gave Flynt the freedom to publish the parody; reasonable people, the Court held, would not believe the parody contained any truth.
Then in 2011 the Supreme Court took up the outrageous case of Snyder v. Phelps. Marine Cpl. Matthew Snyder was killed in Afghanistan, and members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., demonstrated near the funeral home where Cpl. Snyder’s friends and family gathered to pay tribute to him. The church, populated by members of the Fred Phelps family, waved signs that reflect the church’s view, in the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, “that God is killing American soldiers as punishment for the Nation’s sinful policies.”
In the Court’s opinion ruling that the First Amendment protects members of the Phelps family from liability for their expression, Roberts wrote, “Such speech cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt.”
And then, of course, there was Gregory Lee Johnson, who set fire to an American flag at a protest against the renomination of Ronald Reagan for president in Dallas in 1984. When the Supreme Court overturned his conviction on First Amendment grounds, patriots everywhere saw the decision as an insult to the country, to the flag and to brave men and women who fought – and some of whom died – in protecting the very liberty Johnson exercised.
Justice William Brennan, writing for a five-person majority, said, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable… We have not recognized an exception to this principle even where our flag has been involved.”
President Shepherd said it this way, “You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the ‘land of the free.’”
Free speech is tough to understand. Sometimes even Americans who exercise it don’t understand what it really means. I guess we should not be surprised that leaders of other countries don’t understand it either.
Mike Farrell is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications and director of the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center at the University of Kentucky. He was a journalist for nearly 20 years at The Kentucky Post. His views are his own and not those of the university or KyForward.