Organization of Islamic Conference Head “Call[s] for a Global Ban on Offending the Character of the Prophet Muhammad”

So reports the AP:

Ihsanoglu, whose organization represents 57 Muslim-majority countries, said they respect the right of freedom of expression, but believed a line had to be drawn at incitement.

“We are not saying stop free speech. We are staying stop hate speech,” Ihsanoglu said.

This further illustrates how vague and potentially broad the term “hate speech” is. In related news, Harvard law professor Noah Feldman seems to join those suggesting that First Amendment law be changed to suppress the expression of ideas and symbols that sufficiently offend foreign thugs:

[The existing incitement exception] requires not only high probability [of violent reaction] but also imminence. Who is to say exactly when a group of people will watch a speech that took place in another land, organize themselves into a crowd and commit violence? Perhaps if the speaker were seen live and the crowds were already gathered, we could imagine blocking remote speech without compromising on our values. But that’s a far cry from a Web posting that is sent out into the ether in the hopes that it will find an audience. And it certainly does not apply to speech that is calculated to offend listeners rather than to encourage them to protest.

Yet we should also acknowledge that the Supreme Court has recently compromised free-speech principles in the area of terrorism. In a 2010 decision, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, the court upheld the federal law that criminalizes speech that materially supports terrorism. That case involved human rights groups who wanted to teach nonviolent advocacy techniques to Kurdish nationalist groups who were on the State Department’s terrorist list.

The court said that the law could prohibit speakers from advising terrorist groups on how to advocate peacefully in lieu of violence. To reach this conclusion, the Supreme Court simply sidestepped the traditional speech-protected rules for incitement. The implication was that speech supporting terrorism deserved its own legal regime.

Justice Breyer dissented from this decision, bemoaning the court’s failure to consider the usual rules. He clearly doubted that the peaceful advocacy resembled incitement. But the result suggests that the Supreme Court is, in fact, willing to find creative ways to deal with serious threats to public safety.

President Obama’s free-speech rhetoric was inspiring. It remains to be seen if emerging realities of transnational responses to domestic speech will make that rhetoric eventually look dated.

The op-ed doesn’t mention that Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project several times stressed that the law banned only speech that’s coordinated between American speakers and foreign terrorist groups (there, because the speech was focused on face-to-face teaching). Speech that ends up helping foreign terrorist groups remains protected, so long as it’s entirely independent of those groups. But in any event, note the logic that so worries those concerned with slippery slopes: Each precedent allowing restriction of speech can be used as an argument for still further restrictions, even restrictions quite a bit removed from that precedent. If the precedents are extended to govern speech that creates a “serious threat[] to public safety” by offending members of certain religions, what further restrictions will those precedents in turn be deployed to support?

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