Saturday, September 22, 2012
Understanding the concept of free speech in the US
I have been asked by some of my European friends, how is it that hate speech against Jews is called anti-Semitic, hate speech against African Americans is called racism, but the hateful film about Mohammed that caused the violence in the Arab world is called by Americans “free speech”.
They are all hate speech. However, anti Semitic literature and racial slurs are considered free speech, too, in the US, even if those who utter it are verbally condemned by their fellow citizens. Most of the world does not understand the US concept of free speech because it is quite different than what the rest of the world assumes it is .
To understand the US version, our European friends should separate public and political expression of personal or official opinion from government action. The key is: what does the government do when hate is uttered. In some countries, the speaker is thrown into jail. In others, students are forbidden to wear any form of religious preference…a head scarf, a star of David, a cross. In the US, you are not prosecuted by any government for wearing any of these symbols of religious belief. Such expression is protected by the US Constitution. Even if you have a swastika on your T shirt, you may get dirty looks, but you will not go to jail for it. What people say when accusing someone of uttering hate, such as calling someone anti Semitic or a gay basher is tolerated even if saying so is offensive to others.
There is a limit to free speech: The US Supreme Court’s ultimate test is “shouting fire in a crowded theater” is not free speech. People panic and get hurt as they rush to the exits. Rallying a group to demonstrate violently…setting cars on fire, smashing windows..etc..will also lead to prosecution by the government. If police determine a demonstration is violating the law, such as blocking a street without a permit, that is against the law and if the group refuses to obey police orders to stop such actions, they too are subject to arrest and prosecution. Such happened in anti Wall Street demonstrations in Denver this summer. When the demonstrators failed to move their tents and barriers from the street, they were arrested and spent the night in jail or got a citation and were released.
Another kind of limit has been placed into law recently: if the motivation of a person to commit a crime such as vandalism, arson or assault or even murder is hate against a religion, sexual preference, or ethnic or racial person or group, the crime is considered a federal one and penalties are far greater than just the usual ones for those crimes. If a mosque is firebombed, that is investigated as a hate crime. If a synagogue is firebombed, it is also investigated as a hate crime. If a gay person is attacked by someone, and that attacker either says something or has indicated somewhere else that they have hate against gays, they will also be subject to investigation for a hate crimes. If they are found guilty, the penalties will be more severe than if they were not motivated by hate.
Here is why the film that insulted Mohammed, put together by someone who appears to be a Coptic Christian in California, did not result in his arrest. He was a prior convicted fraudster and might be imprisoned for violating terms of his release from prison time later, but imprisonment would not be due to the film. One could say he shouted fire, and someone in the Middle East resorted to violence against US embassies, but there were those in the Middle East who also translated and used the hateful words as a way to incite violent protests, too. That the violence resulted because of third party use of the film muddies the water of guilt and the violence that resulted was not committed in the US or subject to US laws, so the US Constitution could not be invoked. In fact, few ever saw the film until someone posted a trailer on the internet.
Regardless of that, as US officials said, peaceful protests are justified but violent protests should not be tolerated and the killers of the US ambassador and 3 other US officials will be brought to justice. It appears the Libyans are prepared to be the ones to do it. What US officials, both Hillary Clinton and Pres. Obama have said firmly is that the film does not represent the US policies and they roundly condemned the film as disgusting and hateful. As an individual, I am invoking my right to free speech to condemn it, too.