There’s No Such Thing as “Abuse” of Free Speech

By Michael Baker

I get my news and political commentary from the following sources: Ney York Times, LA Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, San Diego Union Tribune, PBS, CNN, Slate, and about half a dozen blogs.  All of them had some discussion of the statement released by the U.S. Embassy in Egypt last week, which Mitt Romney referred to as the Obama Administration’s “apology” for the controversial anti-Muslim video “The Innocence of Muslims.”

Even still, it wasn’t until I took a look at a film critic’s blog that I actually saw the full text of that statement.  Roger Ebert is the first person I’ve seen who unequivocally defends every word of it, and he does a fair job.  But there is one portion of the Egyptian Embassy’s statement that I think is totally objectionable and warrants the entire thing being deemed un-endorsable by any Presidential Administration.  It’s the last sentence: “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”

While the Embassy is free to criticize a particular statement or reject a certain viewpoint, the idea that anyone can “abuse” the right to free speech is simply incorrect.  The idea that a universal right could be abused is completely contradictory.  It’s basically the same thing that people are saying when they accuse an offensive entertainer of “hiding behind the First Amendment.”  The reason that we have the First Amendment is to acknowledge and recognize the right to freedom of speech, among others.  To say that a person has “abused” that right is essentially to say that some speech is legitimately protected, while other speech (offensive speech, I guess) is only technically protected, as if the offensive speaker is exploiting a loophole.  But when it comes to human rights, there are no loopholes.  Free speech is absolute; it’s not designed to protect some things but not others, and it’s not an abuse for someone to invoke their First Amendment protections when they come under fire for a pure expression of their views.

So the Obama Administration is correct to disavow the Embassy’s statement, even if they only did so for political reasons.  Can you imagine if a Presidential Administration actually took the position that some people are “abusing” free speech just because what they say is controversial or has had catastrophic results?  Better to condemn the violent reaction than the non-violent, albeit offensive, speech.

And while we’re on the subject, what about the idea that this so-called “abuse” of free speech can “hurt the religious beliefs of others”?  How do religious beliefs get hurt?  Are they less valid because someone is criticizing them?  If that’s the case (and I don’t think it is), then what is their value to begin with?  How can you “hurt” a system of belief that has a completely self-prescribed intrinsic value that only exists in the eyes of those who follow it?  You can’t.  Now if only all these violent protestors could figure that out.