President Obama Tuesday minced no words in defending the First Amendment before the world, declaring in a speech to the United Nations that the right to free speech is “enshrined” in our Constitution and that failure to safeguard it leads to oppression.
In response to the video denigrating Mohammed that sparked outrage in the Muslim world, Obama had been slow off the mark defending the right of free expression. But he used the platform at the UN not only to defend American free speech but to try to promote it to the rest of the world.
I know there are some who ask why we don’t just ban such a video. And the answer is enshrined in our laws: Our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech.
Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs. As President of our country and Commander-in-Chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day — (laughter) — and I will always defend their right to do so. (Applause.)
Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views, even views that we profoundly disagree with. We do not do so because we support hateful speech, but because our founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views and practice their own faith may be threatened. We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities.
We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression; it is more speech — the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.
Of course, Obama did try to get the video removed from YouTube. But at least we’re hearing the right words now.
Obama noted, correctly, that not everyone around the world accepts free speech. And though he didn’t say it, the fact is, they never will – or not anytime soon.
But he leavened this bow to reality with a demand that others not translate their opposition to free speech into violence.
Now, I know that not all countries in this body share this particular understanding of the protection of free speech. We recognize that. But in 2012, at a time when anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete. The question, then, is how do we respond?
And on this we must agree: There is no speech that justifies mindless violence. (Applause.) There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There’s no video that justifies an attack on an embassy. There’s no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon, or destroy a school in Tunis, or cause death and destruction in Pakistan.
In this modern world with modern technologies, for us to respond in that way to hateful speech empowers any individual who engages in such speech to create chaos around the world. We empower the worst of us if that’s how we respond.
Here is some video that includes the free speech comments:
The free speech section of the remarks complemented what was generally a far less accommodationist tone than Obama speeches past. Today, Obama condemned the violence and disorder that has grown up out of the Arab Spring.
It is time to marginalize those who — even when not directly resorting to violence — use hatred of America, or the West, or Israel, as the central organizing principle of politics . . .
Understand America will never retreat from the world. We will bring justice to those who harm our citizens and our friends, and we will stand with our allies. We are willing to partner with countries around the world to deepen ties of trade and investment, and science and technology, energy and development . . . for partnerships to be effective our citizens must be secure and our efforts must be welcomed.
Whether Obama is posturing in order to avoid being outflanked by a tougher foreign approach by Gov. Mitt Romney, or whether Obama may have gotten a dose of reality about the world in three and half years as president – or both – is unclear to me.
But the speech was a welcome departure from the unadulterated effort to be pleasing and reasonable that has been the hallmark of Obama’s foreign policy.