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Free Speech Must Be Balanced Against The Rights Of Others

Discussion in 'Interfaith Dialogues' started by Aman Singh, Jan 16, 2010.

  1. Aman Singh

    Aman Singh
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    Jun 1, 2004
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    America.gov asked five experts including Maha Elgenaidi: Is it possible to protect religious freedom without limiting free speech?

    By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director and President
    Islamic Networks Group

    The First Amendment of the Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech … ,” thereby binding together these two important concepts in the consciousness of its citizens, and in many ways differentiating the United States from other nations. Both freedoms have been challenged in the brief history of the United States, but both concepts have prevailed in the long term, reflecting an underlying assumption that to limit either would be more detrimental than any possible challenges arising from their application.

    Yet the question arises: Is there ever a circumstance that would warrant the curtailing of free speech to ensure religious freedom?

    One finds that even under the Constitution, there are limits that balance one’s right to free speech against the rights of others, including limits on “the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or ‘fighting’ words — those which by their very utterance inflicted injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” (Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942)) For example, the U.S. Supreme Court has taken the position that states can constitutionally ban acts such as cross burnings, which, it can be argued, are an expression of “free speech.”

    One can point to episodes when unfettered free speech allowed the spread of toxic ideas with horrifying results. In perhaps the most notorious example, Nazi Germany made extensive use of hate speech and virulent propaganda. Even in the United States, we witnessed the impact of anti-Japanese vitriol within our borders during World War II. Violations against humanity do not happen in a vacuum, but are often preceded by a slow and insidious program of hatred advanced by the spoken or written word.

    Today, in light of recent events in the United States and ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the political climate has put a new group of people at risk — Muslims in the West, who since 9/11 have been a target of increased discrimination, harassment and hate crimes. In the aftermath of the tragic Ft. Hood attacks and the Christmas Day attempted airline bombing, reports of mosque vandalism, hate crimes and other incidents have soared. In this context, the freedom to denigrate another’s religion is no longer a purely legal issue, but takes on other dimensions. It has been noted that an important precursor to genocide is the denigration and dehumanization of the target group, which prepares the public for the suspension of its rights.

    As the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) implements actions that are viewed by some as ethnic profiling at airports, it is not a great leap to envision curtailment of civil liberties and an increase in hate crimes and other incidents against Muslims.

    The question then arises, are we willing to risk harm to others for an absolute interpretation of an important principle? There is no simple answer, but it is important to note that even under the Constitution, the right to free speech is not absolute, but must be balanced against the rights of others and the welfare of the general public.

    In the spirit of positive change, we urge people of all faiths and backgrounds to view this issue, not as a reason to divide us, but as an opportunity for dialogue, understanding and bridge building.

    Islamic Networks Group (ING) is an educational outreach organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area with affiliates throughout the United States. Founded in 1993, ING promotes interfaith dialogues and education about world religions.

    Elgenaidi has spoken to hundreds of schools, churches, synagogues, police departments, corporations and public agencies. She has appeared on numerous television and radio programs and is the author of seven training handbooks on outreach for American Muslims as well as eight training modules for public institutions on “developing cultural competency with the American Muslim community.”

    Elgenaidi has been recognized with numerous civil rights awards, including the “Civil Rights Leadership Award” from the California Association of Human Relations Organizations, and the “Citizen of the Year Award” from the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in political science and economics from the American University in Cairo. Elgenaidi is married and lives in Santa Clara, California.

    The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government. For a U.S. official’s view see Promoting Respect for Religious Differences.

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  3. spnadmin

    spnadmin United States
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    Jun 17, 2004
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    These writers did a great job with the assignment they were given. Lot's of food for thought. Just this morning I read what the Sikh respondent wrote. But I have to confess that I am feeling completely dim-witted because the question that the US government asked does not make sense to me. So extra applause to those individuals who took the question on and wrote some interesting essays.

    Freedom of religion, freedom of association, and freedom of speech (expression) are protected under the same amendment in the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution. The 1rst Amendment. In my opinion, if freedoms of religious expression and association are violated, then freedom of speech (expression) is automatically violated. Turn it around. How is it possible to protect religious freedom if freedom of speech is likewise hampered? For example, if the press cannot expose the oppression of religious expression, then how can religion be protected?

    The example of hate speech in Nazi Germany is not a good example because hate speech in the 3rd Reich was government sponsored. For sure anyone, journalist or philosopher alike, who wanted to speak freely about Nazi oppression was stripped of his assets and sent to a concentration camp, and on to the gas chambers.

    Of course their are "limits" under the law. Someone please explain what in principle the government's question is getting at. You cannot understand a constitutional principle by examining only the exceptions. I am not putting 2 and 2 together and getting 4.

    This question does not make sense. Yet the question arises: Is there ever a circumstance that would warrant the curtailing of free speech to ensure religious freedom? How is it possible to protect religious freedom if you fail to protect freedom of speech and expression.
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