The freedom to express oneself without fear and the tolerance for opposing viewpoints are what binds otherwise diverse, democratic societies. In the United States, this freedom is protected by the Constitution, with only very specific limits, the key one of which was imposed in 1969, following a landmark Supreme Court ruling in the case of Brandenburg v. Ohio. According to that ruling, inflammatory speech cannot be penalized unless it is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”
The discussion of the boundaries of free speech is one that continues to arouse controversy, both in the US and abroad. It basically centers on the extent to which a country agrees with American Founding Father and fourth president James Madison, who said: “A man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them.”
British-Indian author Salman Rushdie — whose book, The Satanic Verses, spurred Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill him — clearly holds Madison’s view. In the 30 years since the book was released, Rushdie has been warning about the dangers of curbing free speech. Not only did he bemoan the 2015 mass murder in Paris of the Charlie Hebdo magazine staff at the hands of radical Islamists, but he has also been an outspoken critic of Western universities censoring and banning speakers with whom they disagree. “It’s nonsense, and it needs to be called out as nonsense and rejected as thoroughly as possible,” he said in 2015, while accepting a lifetime achievement award from the Chicago Tribune.
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) — made up of 57 mostly Muslim-majority states(56 plus “Palestine”) — disagrees. In its 8th observatory report on Islamophobia, the OIC states, “…there is a need… to work with the media to promote the understanding of responsible use of freedom of speech… [and]… Hold the media accountable for perpetuating hate speech and extremism.” The OIC’s Media Strategy in Countering Islamophobia and its Implementation Mechanisms describes one part of its strategy as:
“To call media professionals to develop, articulate and implement voluntary codes of conduct to counter Islamophobia. The OIC and its Member States should be vocal in calling media professionals to use the power they have with responsibly through accurate reporting..”
What, however, if those two requirements — accurate reporting and countering Islamophobia — conflict with each other?
Unfortunately, many in the Western media have been acceding to such demands, either because they agree that being critical of radical Muslims constitutes “Islamophobia,” or out of fear of being accused of it. The social media giant, Facebook, for example, often uses a selective definition of “hate speech” to justify censoring certain pages and posts.
The Czech Republic, whose Senate banned an appearance on its premises by the Dutch politician Geert Wilders in 2009, is no stranger to the pressure applied by radical Islamists to censor material that some consider offensive. In April, the Karolinum bookstore in Prague halted the promotion of the best-selling book, Breaking the Walls, about the migration crisis. In June, the Regional Science Library canceled a discussion with that book’s author, sociologist Dr. Petr Hampl, on the grounds that: “The contents of the book and the opinions… are inconsistent with the opinions advocated by the library.”
This is worse than ironic, when one considers that the late Chinese dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, author of Charter 08 — which was inspired by Czechoslovak Charter 77 — said: “Free expression is the base of human rights, the root of human nature and the mother of truth. To kill free speech is to insult human rights, to stifle human nature and to suppress truth.”
In his 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” Václav Havel, the dissident and later President of the Czech Republic, wrote:
“Man… does not have to accept a lie. It is enough that he accepted life with lie and in lie. This already confirms the system, he fills it, he does it, he is it…”
What Havel fought for as a dissident was a society based on critical thinking and free speech. That these values have been rejected and undermined by totalitarian regimes might make sense; but it boggles the mind that any Western society would choose to forfeit those values. The fact is that where these values end, the West ends as well.
The late American architect and philosopher, Buckminster Fuller, summed it up:
“There is more recognition now that things are changing, but not because there is a political move to do it. It is simply a result of the information being there. Our survival won’t depend on political or economic systems. It’s going to depend on the courage of the individual to speak the truth, and to speak it lovingly and not destructively. It’s saying what you really know and feel is the truth, in all directions.”
The words about freedom attributed to the late Miloš Forman, Czech-American director of Hair, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, should be heeded by generations to come:
“Because if you lived, as I did, several years under Nazi totalitarianism, and then 20 years in communist totalitarianism, you would certainly realize how precious freedom is, and how easy it is to lose your freedom.”
“…the cornerstone of democracy is [a] free press — that’s the cornerstone.”