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This week President Obama cut short his trip to India, the world’s largest democracy, to meet with the new monarch of Saudi Arabia, paying respects after the death last week of King Abdullah. The trip underscores the importance the U.S. government puts on its strategic relationship with the Kingdom and is underscored by the punishment of Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi.
Two weeks ago, Badawi received the first 50 of what may be 1,000 lashes, part of the sentence he received for operating the “Free Saudi Liberal Network,” which fostered political and social debate over Islam and Liberalism. Meanwhile, in neighboring Bahrain, another important U.S. ally, prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab was charged (again) with “insulting a public institution and the army” via a tweet and sentenced to 6 months imprisonment.
Some would consider both Badawi and Rajab’s punishment to be quite archaic—they both were merely peacefully expressing their views through social media. Following the brutal attack on staff members of the Charlie Hebdo magazine earlier in January, thousands marched in Paris and other cities to show their support for the victims and for the freedom of speech--yet virtually none have marched in those cities to support Badawi and Rajab as they attempt to crack the walls of absolutism in their countries, by attempting to start a local dialog on faith and extremism.
Thousands marched in Europe to protect Charlie Hebdo’s right to continue its satire, because they support the freedom of expression, especially against threats. But beyond legal frameworks and rights, how do we as people support one another across borders to uphold the ideal of free speech?
U.S. jurisprudence balances protection and regulation of the ideal and fundamental right of free speech, especially if the content expressed can be considered offensive, distasteful, or dangerous to either a person or a government. In the U.S. two Supreme Court Justices have explained the importance of protecting those who espouse unpopular ideas. Oliver Wendell Jones, Jr. and Louis D. Brandeis both put forth the idea that, for a democracy to function, people must be able to choose and vote for the people and ideas that best coincide with their own—an act that becomes impossible when some of those views are suppressed. Other court cases have dealt with the issue of when speech becomes dangerous—when the words spoken seem to incite violence, as in the case of the attack at Charlie Hebdo. The idea of the “heckler’s veto” stems from a case in which a Catholic priest gave a speech and an angry mob outside the building began rioting, leading police to arrest the priest for his hateful language. The Supreme Court ruled that the police should have protected the priest and kept the mob in check, allowing him to finish speaking. The alternative would be a legal path for anyone to silence a speaker they disliked using violence.
The U.S. Supreme Court has concluded that suppression is not the way to deal with offensive cartoons (or movies, like “The Interview”). Western countries should not feel that, in the interest of protecting the feelings of a minority group (or a majority group), they should silence those who criticize them. They should stand firm in their support of free expression, even in the face of threats of violent retaliation.
Charlie Hebdo was well within its rights to publish cartoons insulting religion, just as others are perfectly justified in peacefully expressing their disgust with them (as they did in marches in Pakistan, Chechnya and Iran). To me, the question is should millions of us march in support of someone’s right to be offensive? Legal standing aside, irreverence is not worthy of the same pedestal as those free expressions that inspire us to live well together among difference. All speech and expression should be protected, but if Charlie Hebdo’s divisive cartoons deserve a march of solidarity, then Nabeel Rajab and Raif Badawi deserve one much more for their use of words to shed light on injustice and intolerance, especially as they do so facing the certainty of censure and extreme punishment from their governments.
Photo credit: a katz / Shutterstock.com