Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Trajic Misuse of Freedom of Speech

by Hassan Shibly

Dutch lawmaker, Geert Wilders was recently allowed entry to Britain after over a year of being denied entry due to his controversial film about Islam.

"Wilders' film "Fitna," which was released online in March 2008, features disturbing images of terrorist acts superimposed over verses from Islam's holy book, the Quran, to paint Islam as a threat to Western society.

After its release, the movie drew complaints from the European Union and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, as well as concern from the United States, which warned it could spark riots"

People throughout the world are imprisoned, tortured, and even killed when they attempt to exercise free speech. They wish to exercise free speech so that they can call out corruption and injustice. Yet we sometimes use free speech as an excuse, if not justification, to insult and defame the beliefs of others. We use free speech to propagate hate, fear, and bigotry, based on misinformation and lies. It is disheartening and disgraceful that people use freedom of speech for such unworthy causes when others are giving their lives as they attempt to use it for worthy causes.

We do a great disservice to those who died in the name of freedom of speech, by being fooled into believing that those who use freedom of speech to unjustly hurt others are standing for the same great freedom of speech that we so value and honor. We value freedom of speech because it is a means to promote truth, liberty, and justice—yet those who misuse it are seeking polar opposites of what it was initially a means to protect.

In order for freedom of speech to survive, it must have broad protections that even shield those who misuse it. Thus those who misuse it may have a legal right to do so. But it must be remembered that courts do not and cannot ordain whatever is best for society in each individual case. Rather, they ordain whatever is permitted. Hence, a court can (and should) protect someone’s right to a particular act, but it cannot impress upon the actor to exercise their right in the best manner. Hence, courts can protect someone’s freedom of speech, but cannot force the speaker to use their freedom in the manner it was intended: for the open and honest discussion of issues important to the speaker.

Thus it is simply up to us, not as lawyers, but individuals, to recognize that those who use “freedom of speech” as an excuse to divide our community and promote hate and bigotry are no real champions of freedom of speech but rather are using this noble right to spread open lies and half truths. We as Americans must make the decision not to stand for such hate mongering. We must peacefully take a stand and send a message to hate-speech advocates that “no, you shall not use this noble right for an act that is counter to the very essence of free speech.”

It is thus very saddening that when a world leader was given a right by a court to travel to promote a film which demonizes the faith and culture of billions of people through outright lies and bigotry, he claimed that the court decision was “a victory for the freedom of speech.” How shameful! The interests freedom of speech was intended to protect are polar opposites of the interests for which he made his bigoted film. Freedom of speech is sought because it protects truth and justice; his films promote lies and hatred.

In short, the next time you see someone using freedom of speech to promote bigotry, hatred, slander, defamation, or any other cause, tell them "shame on you for using such a noble term as a cover for such an ignoble cause."

Hassan Shibly is a second year student at the University at Buffalo School of Law. He is on the Law School's prestigious Student Advisory Committee to the Human Rights Center at the University at Buffalo School of Law.

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