The escalating crisis over the YouTube release of a despicable film ridiculing the Prophet Mohammed is supposedly about freedom of speech. America’s sacred First Amendment enshrines it as a basic right, while in other parts of the world, that freedom, like any other, is deemed to have limits.
The recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United stating that corporations are people and that money is speech is widely seen by progressive Americans as unjustifiable under the First Amendment. They honor the principle famously expressed by Voltaire: ‘I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” but admit that it should be against the law to cry ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. In other words, all good men should defend another’s right to voice his opinions, however unpalatable. But as in the fundamentals of a free press, fact (a possible fire) should be separated from opinion (how one views another person). This boils down to saying that opinion is sacred, but acts are not.
Here again, as in the definition of democracy in my previous post, the socialist tradition differs. There is no such thing as absolute external freedom; our only absolute freedom is that which we carry within ourselves. Therefore, we cannot be punished for our thoughts. However, if voicing an opinion can be as dangerous to some lives as crying fire, the public expression of opinion must have limits.
Today a satirical French paper published cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohamed, and as a result, the French government has had to put a number of its embassies on alert. Knowing the French for having lived among them for thirty years, I would venture to say that most of them consider this an abuse of ‘freedom of the press’!
The difference in attitudes toward freedom of the press can also be seen in Third World demands for a new Information Order that began in the seventies, and are being revived by the newly vocal Non-Aligned Movement. Though no longer ‘socialist’, Russia and China – both supporters of the NAM – believe journalists, like banks, should have a code of ethics. This means reporting on events that concern responsible citizens wanting to weigh on decisions, while ignoring cheap ‘human interest’ stories.
Do we really need to see William’s wife in the nude? The paparazzo who took the pictures and the magazines that published them are of the same ilk as the perpetrators of Innocence of Muslims. Tabloids – or TV coverage of women wrestlers – do not foster inner peace. All religious leaders call for that peace and ridiculing any of them can only be the work of people whose vision of humanity is twisted beyond recognition.