Speaking up

Editorial Notebook

June 14, 2008|By Michael Cross-Barnet

America has plenty of flaws - just look at how it elects a president. But for something to feel good about, consider this: When you learn that a magazine is on trial for, among other things, injuring the "dignity, feelings and self-respect" of a certain group of people, you can be sure such a thing isn't happening in the U.S.

We often hear that America's stature is in decline, but it still seems as if the whole world drinks Coke, watches Lost and yearns for American-style democracy. The foundation of that democracy, of course, is the U.S. Constitution. The cornerstone of the Constitution is the First Amendment. And the hallmark of the First Amendment, most would agree, is freedom of speech.

Is anything more "American" than the liberty to state one's opinion publicly without fear of reprisal? And shouldn't it follow, then, that nations that admire the U.S. would seek to similarly safeguard this most precious of freedoms?

Well, actually, no. It turns out that in establishing freedom of speech as a virtually unassailable right, America is an outlier. This may be understandable - though hardly creditable - in much of the developing world, where the concept of individual rights is often murky. And in Europe, where propaganda fueled the deaths of millions last century, skittishness about hateful speech is common.

But what about Canada? We share with our northern neighbor centuries of heritage in law and culture. Yet one would seek in vain there for a full-throated defense of the right to speak (or publish) freely. Case in point: Maclean's, the respected Canadian news weekly on trial for an article that hurt the Muslim community's feelings.

Still, at least it can't happen here, right? But in fact it has happened here. In the early days of World War I, Congress enacted an Espionage Act in which criticism of government policies became a federal crime. More recently, there have been proposals to legally recognize "group libel" that would ban defamation of racial or minority groups.

Even today, there are reports that some legal scholars and free-speech advocates, including famed First Amendment supporter Anthony Lewis, are having second thoughts about protecting speech that, for example, advocates terrorism. But for most Americans, the right of free speech remains deeply entrenched as vital to our democracy.

Today is Flag Day, and many government buildings, organizations and individuals will be displaying the symbol of our proud nation. Here's something else you can do today to celebrate what makes America special: Speak your mind. And be thankful you live in a nation where that is still allowed.

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