Free Speech Should Remain Free

By Kevin Ross
Contributor
April 2, 2009

Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders was arrested in Britain in February for “hate speech” following the release of his controversial film “Fitna”, which links Islam with violence.

In January, the United Nations passed a non-binding resolution urging nations to protect against the “defamation of religions”, particularly Islam. The Organization of the Islamic Conference has been the driving force behind this resolution and it has gained the support of 83 member nations of the UN.

Supporters of the resolution celebrate Wilders’ arrest. They say that the right to free speech should be protected but, hateful remarks, like those made by Geert Wilders, should be banned. The argument is that the ideas of some people, like Geert Wilders, are so offensive that a UN resolution is necessary to prevent violence. After the release of “Fitna”, the Grand Mufti of Syria said, "If there is unrest, bloodshed and violence after the broadcast of the Qur’an film, Wilders will be responsible."

While hateful remarks may be rude and distasteful, and may even lead to riots and demonstrations, they should not be made illegal. If this happened, there would be an endless stream of groups seeking to outlaw speech they deemed inappropriate. This is exactly what “freedom of speech” was intended to prevent. Having to put up with offensive remarks is the price for an open and tolerant society.

The UN measure will promote a misguided justification for offended people that they cannot be held responsible for their actions. The right to free speech provides Muslim groups vexed by Wilders’ movie the right to protest against it. But if governments limit free speech to prevent bloodshed, then those willing to use violence will dictate which ideas are acceptable and which are not.

Furthermore, the UN resolution’s intention of stopping religious bigotry will result in the opposite outcome. In Pakistan, someone accused of having “defiled the name of Muhammad of Islam" can receive a death sentence. In Saudi Arabia, sentences for blasphemy and apostasy have included long periods of lashing, prison terms, and death. Millions of religious minorities and secularists are already at the mercy of oppressive anti-blasphemy laws. The new UN resolution will justify the practices of governments that crack down on these groups.

The United States, India, Japan, and a number of other countries voted against the UN “anti-defamation” measure. They should continue building support from countries that would be willing to reject the resolution when it is considered for international law in the UN General Assembly this spring. People across the world need to stand up for Geert Wilders. We do not have to agree with what he says, but we should agree with his right to say it.

If we allow governments to regulate the marketplace of ideas, then it will not be long before we all have to fear speaking our minds.

Kevin Ross is a first year graduate student at the Elliott School of International Affairs. He currently works at The College of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University. His research interests include humanitarian military interventions, NATO expansion, and transnational crime.

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