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February 20, 2006

Freedom of Speech

In Austria a man was just sentenced to three years in jail for writing a book denying the Holocaust.  That’s wrong.  Doesn’t matter that he’s wrong.  Doesn’t matter that he’s an anti-Semite.  Doesn’t matter that, as a Jew, I find this offensive.  He has a right to freedom of speech.  If he doesn’t have the right to deny the Holocaust, then the mullahs are right: no one should have a right to offend them either.

The right of free speech, ironically, extends to criticizing free speech.  Muslims have a right to demonstrate peacefully against both the fact that the West allows publication of cartoons featuring the Prophet Mohammed and/or against the cartoons themselves (not the same thing).  Everyone has a right to try to convince someone else NOT to say something; everyone has a right to object to what someone else says; what no one has a right to do is to stop someone else from saying what they want to say (with certain obvious exceptions like intentional libel, yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, and perjury).

Many years ago there was a controversy over flag burning in the US.  We were at a Guy Fawkes bonfire on a beach (in the US).  Some jerk (my point of view) put an American flag on the fire.  I left much to the embarrassment of my young daughters.  Not sure I can explain any better now than I did then.  The jerk (my point of view) had a right to burn the flag.  I had a similar right to not want to be part of his burning the flag and to leave (whether I had a right to embarrass daughters is a different story).  If I had NO right to leave, then I might have had a right to stop him from burning the flag since he didn’t have a right to make me a participant in his flag burning.  No wonder I couldn’t explain it to my daughters.

Freedom of speech of necessity includes the right to disagree with speech AND to choose what you do or don’t want to listen to.  No one has a right to stop me from looking at cartoons of the Prophet or even publishing them on my blog as I did.  Everyone has a right to criticize me for either act and to argue with or to ignore my blog, even to urge others not to read my blog.

It’s fair to listen to what people say and to act on it, however.  Would I give a job as a history professor to a Holocaust-denier?  No, not a good scholar.  Would I give him a job as a programmer? Hmm… What if he were a really good programmer?  To be honest, probably not.  What he says makes me think he’s a pretty terrible human being and it offends me.  But he does have a right to say it.

Which brings me all the way back to those who are burning Danish, US, and Israeli flags  (which they have right to do) or burning consulates (which they don’t have a right to do).  Their protest might me a little more creditable if they were demanding an end to their countries accepting aid from the Great Satans.  Especially Hamas which believes it can say what it wants, practice terrorism, tell us what we may or may not say, but that we have no right to withhold our voluntary funding for their activities.  Huh?

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