Free Speech Under Siege at the United Nations

The United Nations, which was founded after World War II with the noble goal of preventing further violence and conflict between nation-states, is losing its way.

The U.N. has historically been a great supporter of human rights, including the most important of them all, the right of free speech. Consider Articles 18 and 19 of the Fundamental Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by unanimous resolution of the General Assembly in 1948:

Article 18.

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19.

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

These are laudable statements in defense of free speech and free expression. I find nothing in them to disagree with, and I wish such principles were more widely held. But the U.N. itself now seems to be moving in the other direction, attempting to destroy the right of free speech in the name of a dubious moral relativism.

The past two years, the General Assembly has passed – though far from unanimously – a resolution titled “Combating Defamation of Religion“, which urges member states to pass laws prohibiting any speech that foments discrimination, hostility or violence against any religious group.

While preventing violence is an important goal, the rest of this resolution is a broad attack on the right to free expression wrapped in the garb of diplomatic language. What exactly constitutes “defamation” of religion? If a group of people have practiced a religious belief system for thousands of years, if they value it deeply and base their culture and lives around its teachings, is it “defamation” to suggest that those beliefs are false or lack supporting evidence? Will it be considered fomenting discrimination or hostility against a religion to say that that religion is false and people should not follow it, or to say that followers of that religion have been responsible for much oppression and violence? The very likely intended answer to both these questions, I fear, is yes. (The linked article spells out its answer: “The defamation of religions… may even prohibit the defamation of religious ideas and doctrines.”)

The apparent goal behind this resolution, as explained by Prof. Liaquat Ali Khan in the link above, is to prevent people from saying that Islam is a terrorist religion or intrinsically violent. I certainly understand why Muslims would not want people saying this. But if they do not want people saying this, then the way to stop that is to put a stop to Islamic terrorism – not to turn a blind eye to it, or even to encourage it by funding radical Muslim sects or disseminating anti-Western propaganda, and then react in outrage when some people suggest that Islam seems to give rise to terrorism quite frequently and demand that their speech be outlawed. As I have said before, if religious groups want people to stop criticizing them, then they should stop doing things worthy of criticism.

Although the article expresses superficial concern for preserving the right to free speech, its author’s understanding of why free speech is actually needed seems deficient. He explains that “the idea… poses no greater problems than prohibiting hate speech against racial, ethnic, or religious groups – a law adopted in almost all countries of the world except the United States”. Yes, and those laws are unacceptable infringements upon free speech as well. The cure for bad speech is not a law prohibiting it, but better speech. When we try to ban ideas simply because the majority finds them outrageous, embarrassing or offensive, those ideas are inevitably driven underground to flourish. Eliminating an idea by banning its expression is a tactic that has never, as far as I am aware, worked in human history. And regardless of the noble-sounding intentions behind “hate speech” laws, they usually put us on a slippery slope towards banning any idea which the majority dislikes, which is exactly what we see occurring here. Once the idea that a person can be forbidden to speak because we do not want to hear what he has to say is implanted in society, that concept all too quickly metastasizes into other areas of public discourse. In all cases, the cure for a bad argument is a better argument, one which exposes its fallacies while at the same time showing we are not afraid of allowing it to be voiced.

In a way, the free-speech debacle at the U.N. is a microcosm of the most fundamental problem with democracy itself – the tyranny of the majority. In this case, the majority of votes in the General Assembly come from countries that do not have a strong legal tradition of protecting free speech, who outnumber the relative minority that do. Although I believe that democracy is the only acceptable system of government, stories like this show the importance of counterbalancing the prejudices of the majority with a legal framework to protect the human rights of the minority, exactly as the United States’ founders established. Although this resolution is purely symbolic and has no binding power, it is a chilling expression of the profound hostility that still exists throughout the world to the idea of free speech. As simple and obvious an idea as this still faces widespread opposition and hostility, which is an important reminder of why it is worth fighting for.

* * *

On an even higher plane of idiocy, a professor named Robert Freedman has proposed an even more radical and ridiculous idea, one which calls for the creation of an “International Religious Court“, composed of Christian, Muslim and Jewish clergy. Anyone who felt that their religion had been “insulted” could haul the perpetrator before this court, which would rule on what punishment they would have to undergo. Freedman further adds that media groups should consider the negative depiction of religion “out of bounds”.

I try to avoid harsh language, but there is no way to describe this proposal other than as incredibly stupid, by which I mean that it displays a glaring deficit of intelligence, reasoning and good judgment. Leave aside, for the moment, the bizarre assertion that a single person could represent all of Christianity, all of Judaism, or all of Islam, when each of these faiths are riven by divisions so deep that members of different sects have killed each other over them in the past. Leave aside the imperialist condescension implicit in the idea that only the Abrahamic religions deserve representation on this court, as opposed to the Eastern religions which have hundreds of millions of followers – or even atheism, which by most counts has far more adherents globally than Judaism. Leave aside these and all the other patent impossibilities implicit in the idea of establishing such a thing.

There is a more fundamental problem with this proposal, one which shows its author is either disrespectful or just plain ignorant of the very notion of human rights. Freedman seems to feel that if some act of speech offends members of a particular religion, then it is a bad thing and should be banned. In fact, speech that offends and even outrages others is often a good thing and the sure sign of a healthy, vigorous society. Speech that goes against widely held prejudices will always be unpopular, but such speech is also the only way to provoke societal revolution and moral improvement wherever it is needed. That is the whole point of why we have free speech in the first place.

If we are limited to only saying things that offend no one, then we will have lost the ability to say anything of value at all. This is no less true for religion than it is for any other area of society, and in fact it may be more true, considering how much harm has been done in the name of irrational superstitions throughout history. Like the U.N. resolution, Freedman’s proposal showcases his lack of understanding of the vital importance of being able to criticize bad ideas so that they can be replaced with better ones.

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