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Criminalizing intolerance

At a United Nations conference this week, free speech is in the cross hairs.

December 12, 2011|By Jonathan Turley

What is more alarming, however, is the advancement of this agenda in Western countries. This year, Dutch legislator Geert Wilders secured a hard-fought acquittal from criminal charges after years of investigation and litigation for saying disrespectful things about Muslims. In Britain, a 15-year-old girl was arrested in November 2010 for burning a Koran. Other religions are now following suit and calling for the arrest of those who utter criticisms of their faiths. French fashion designer John Galliano was convicted in September of uttering anti-Semitic remarks in an outburst in a restaurant. In Russia, two prominent art curators in Moscow who faced up to three years in prison for showing art that insulted the Russian Orthodox Church were fined in 2010. In Britain, a 15-year-old boy was given a criminal summons for holding up a sign declaring "Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult."

Although the OIC and the Obama administration claim fealty to free speech, the very premise of the meeting reveals a desire to limit it. Many delegates presuppose that speech threatens faith, when it has been religious orthodoxy that has long been the enemy of free speech. Conversely, free speech is the ultimate guarantee of religious freedom.

History has shown that once you yield to the temptation to regulate speech, you quickly find yourself on a slippery slope as other divisive subjects are added to the list. This year, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) declared ominously that "free speech is a great idea, but we're in a war."

It seems that some have grown weary of free speech. After all, less speech means less division and discord. When the alternative is violent protests, silence is golden for governments. Of course, denying the right to speak does not create real tranquillity, only the illusion. But for these governments, including our own, an illusion may be as good as reality.

Jonathan Turley is a professor of public interest law at George Washington University.

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