U.S. Government Must Combat Hatred Without Restricting Speech

New York City – In its response to the violent anti-American demonstrations across the Middle East and beyond protesting a film insulting Islam and the Prophet Mohamed, American leaders have sought to strike a balance between two important values: tolerance and respect for diverse religious beliefs and freedom of expression. While Human Rights First praises the U.S. government’s statements that condemn the hateful nature of the video as well as the violence it sparked, it cautions that the government must hold firm to the principle that restricting speech is not the answer to hateful or defamatory statements. “In making clear that the ‘United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others,’ the U.S. government is rightly repudiating speech designed to cause offense and incite conflict,” said Human Rights First’s Neil Hicks. “At the same time, the U.S. government should seize this moment to reinforce its commitment to freedom of speech and to push back against the misguided idea that self-identified groups of believers have a collective right not to be insulted. There is no such right. As these events demonstrate, to concede that such a right exists only empowers extremists to set the parameters of acceptable discourse. That would be profoundly damaging to freedom of expression and freedom of religion.” Human Rights First notes that while violence in response to speech is never justified, the U.S. government should go further and reiterate its opposition to the idea that religions can be defamed and that blasphemy or speech deemed to be defamatory of religion should be punished. Though it is correct to deplore the content of this reprehensible film, as senior American leaders have now done repeatedly, the right to produce and disseminate offensive material is an essential part of the right itself and it must be defended. “It is important to remember that those calling for the offensive film to be banned and for its makers to be punished by state actions do not represent all Muslims. Those offended by the content of the film have the right to protest peacefully, however the idea behind the protests is intrinsically hostile to the right to freedom of expression and should be challenged,” stated Hicks. Human Rights First notes that those who have most vocally endorsed and supported the protests against the film include many of the region’s worst human rights violators, including the Iranian, Syrian and Sudanese governments and extremist religious movements in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, which are using the controversy over the film to pressure weak transitional governments to adopt their illiberal agenda. “Governments where anti-American protests have taken place in the wake of the film have the primary responsibility to push back against this kind of extremism and the U.S. government should support them in doing so. It was heartening that the Deputy President of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Khairat al-Shater wrote in a letter published in the New York Times on September 13 that ‘we do not hold the American government or its citizens responsible for acts of the few that abuse the laws protecting freedom of expression,’” said Hicks. “He and the movement he represents must follow-up on such sentiments by actively discouraging further protests against the United States on the basis of the film in Egypt, and by challenging those in Egypt, including many of the Brotherhood’s own supporters, who have supported anti-American protests around this issue.” Governments, religious leaders and other public figures have a responsibility not to stoke a misguided sense of public grievance that all too often results in violence.  Similarly, governments should resist calls to adopt blasphemy or other laws designed to protect religion from defamation since such laws are too easily abused by extremists to persecute religious minorities and to impose ever more restrictive interpretations of religion on the society as a whole. Likewise, Human Rights First also points out that the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights call on all governments to respect human rights—including, fundamentally, free speech—and to ensure that companies under the government’s purview respect human rights. “In this instance, the U.S. government has undercut both responsibilities. In taking the unusual step of calling on Google to review whether continuing to make this  offensive  film available is in compliance with the company’s terms of use agreement raises concerns that the administration is willing to restrict freedom of speech to avoid giving offense to a particular group of people,” said Human Rights First’s Meg Roggensack. “The U.S. government has been, quite understandably, concerned with the security of its personnel abroad; its strategy in addressing this film and the backlash need to focus on safety and security measures, not on restricting free speech.” Human Rights First has urged internet companies that deal in user-generated content to develop internal policies to address content like that featured in the film that has sparked widespread protests. It notes that such company policy development must include human rights impact assessments that are informed by broad local stakeholder engagement. Doing so will allow for appropriately-calibrated responses that protect free speech and other human rights to the greatest extent possible. Companies seeking guidance in policy development should look closely at the principles put forth by the Global Network Initiative, a multi-stakeholder group comprised of companies, investors, academics, and civil society organizations, including Human Rights First.


Published on September 18, 2012


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