President Obama used the National Prayer Breakfast Thursday morning to undermine one of the Constitution’s most fundamental rights, suggesting those who demean Islam are abusing the use of free speech.
While acknowledging that Americans have “a legal right” to attack another’s religion, Obama said everyone should question those “who would insult others in the name of free speech,” indicating such insults were a misuse of the right. Similarly, Obama’s called for “civility” – a demand he has issued before but not always abided by himself – suggesting a desire that people censor their own speech.
As has been often said, the Founders’ free speech protections were not designed to safeguard polite conversation. They were exactly meant for speech that might offend.
There’s wisdom in our founders writing in those documents that help found this nation the notion of freedom of religion, because they understood the need for humility. They also understood the need to uphold freedom of speech, that there was a connection between freedom of speech and freedom of religion. For to infringe on one right under the pretext of protecting another is a betrayal of both.
But part of humility is also recognizing in modern, complicated, diverse societies, the functioning of these rights, the concern for the protection of these rights calls for each of us to exercise civility and restraint and judgment. And if, in fact, we defend the legal right of a person to insult another’s religion, we’re equally obligated to use our free speech to condemn such insults — (applause) — and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with religious communities, particularly religious minorities who are the targets of such attacks.
Just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean the rest of us shouldn’t question those who would insult others in the name of free speech. Because we know that our nations are stronger when people of all faiths feel that they are welcome, that they, too, are full and equal members of our countries.
For Obama to lump himself in with other citizens who might criticize anti-islamist speech is also a dangerous precedent. Obama isn’t just any other citizen. He is the president of the United States, with vast law enforcement resources at his disposal, and his attacks on the speech of others, however offensive the speech is, can have a chilling effect on the right of free expression.
The remarks castigating those who attack Islam also are an indirect criticism of cartoonists at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, who drew caricatures of Mohammed and were killed for it.