The Freedom Of…

Posted by Viktoria Michaelis on September 28, 2012 in News & Opinion |

I wonder, reading through all the news items on the short film The Innocence of Muslims, how many of those protesting have seen the film? I will be quite honest and say right out up front, I haven’t seen it. I don’t intend watching it either. That is my choice, that is me exercising my freedom of choice against what other people claim to be freedom of speech. The Constitution, writing as a citizen of the US, reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

I am sure there are many, many people who know this by heart and, at any opportunity, will use it to justify their actions. But is it what our forefathers meant when the Constitution was first drafted? As we all know, the Constitution is a simple and acceptable document designed to make our lives simpler and happier, but it has been changed through the years with a series of amendments which, looking back, take the original meaning right out of context and throw a whole mess of steel bars in the working wheels of society.

What I have quoted, above, is not what was written. The original version is:

The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretence, infringed.

It went through several changes before the final version was accepted and published and, with the annotations, with various legal challenges and expansions, has gone through many, many changes since. It is the same with every single section of the Constitution, what was originally written is not what we have today, and what we have today has been so changed that what we read is not what is actually meant any more.

And then we have the personal interpretations, the individual readings which are forced to fit to anything which a person says or does in order to justify their actions.

Is the film The Innocence of Muslims an act which falls under freedom of speech? Perhaps, in the broadest sense, yes. But does it still infringe against the Constitution and against freedom of speech? Yes, in my opinion it does that too.

Why? When it is an act which could be called freedom of speech does it also infringe?

Laws passed through the various organs of State and Legislature are generally put together for a specific purpose and to combat, enhance or augment a specific situation. This is one of the reasons why we have so many different dissenting opinions, so many amendments, so many annotations. One judge may well interpret a law, or a section of that law, in a different way to another judge according to the needs of his or her case. Every single situation is different, and there is no law which can cover absolutely every eventuality. If there were, we wouldn’t need a Supreme Court to make final decisions and we wouldn’t need to many laws, so many annotations and alterations.

Freedom of Speech is a concept which cannot be defined on paper. It cannot be contained within a judicial judgement or the annotations which follow. What is freedom for one person can be an insult for another.

When it comes to religion, freedom of speech is an absolute impossibility. No matter the roots of a religion, whether they all come from the same source or even have similar ideas and ideals, religious interpretation prevents the different sides from seeing or accepting the rights and beliefs of the other side. Added to which, you can list all the major religions and generally say what they stand for, but you can never define what those relgions mean for the individuals who follow them. Every single individual has their own interpretation for the religion that they follow.

The Constitution says: ‘Congress shall make no law…’. The original says: ‘The civil rights of none…’. Had the original passed through the scrutiny of various governmental institutions and passed into the final version the world would be a completely different place. In its present form, regardless of amendments and annotations, it is very strict and clear. The original, speaking of civil rights, covered considerably more and, even in our modern world, would be a far better legal solution to many of the problems we see today regarding freedom of speech.

Another original to the Constitution, which disappeared in the final version, reads:

The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.

Here one of the most important words is ‘sentiments’. It makes little difference what those sentiments may be, the right to express them was clearly defined as a Right. And there is, in the original, no sub-section which gives anyone the right to exclude certain types or styles of sentiment, be it political, religious, sexual or anything else. And yet, during the debates on this clause, there are certain thoughts expressed which would limit the Right:

Every freeman has an undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public; to forbid this, is to destroy the freedom of the press: but if he publishes what is improper, mischievous, or illegal, he must take the consequences of his own temerity.

And it is precisely this sentiment, expressed by Blackstone, which should be brought to the fore, especially in such a matter as The Innocence of Muslims.

There have to be limits to every freedom we claim to enjoy. I write ‘claim’ because, as we all know, as we have all experienced, one person’s freedom is not another person’s freedom and government most certainly does limit the right to freedom of speech, as does the press. The Internet, being considerably more open and available to (almost) all, has no such restrictions, if you know how to get around the laws of your own country. The film The Innocence of Muslims would never have been shown in any respectable cinema, but the Internet does not have the same sense of what is right and what is wrong, what infringes and what is insulting.

Blackstone continued:

To subject the press to the restrictive power of a licenser, as was formerly done, both before and since the Revolution, is to subject all freedom of sentiment to the prejudices of one man, and make him the arbitrary and infallible judge of all controverted points in learning, religion and government. But to punish as the law does at present any dangerous or offensive writings, which, when published, shall on a fair and impartial trial be adjudged of a pernicious tendency, is necessary for the preservation of peace and good order, of government and religion, the only solid foundations of civil liberty. Thus, the will of individuals is still left free: the abuse only of that free will is the object of legal punishment. Neither is any restraint hereby laid upon freedom of thought or inquiry; liberty of private sentiment is still left; the disseminating, or making public, of bad sentiments, destructive to the ends of society, is the crime which society corrects.

The opening sentence here makes it clear why Congress, or any other lawmaking body, cannot legislate freedom of speech. One single person, or even a group of judges at the highest level, cannot judge the sentiments of an individual, only what is right and what is wrong. It is down to society to judge, to condemn or to praise, to debate and to take action. And society, out of necessity, must nominate those they trust to take action on their behalf, back to the one man or the group. Society must make it clear to those in positions of authority what is right and what is wrong in their opinion, so that the individual passing judgement may come to a fair and impartial decision.

How does that work in the States when the harm is caused to people living outside of our borders?

Religions know no borders. A religious belief can be held in the States as much as in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Cyprus or wherever. The insults brought about through the publication of The Innocence of Muslims are not confined, purely because it is a religious matter and because an international medium, the Internet, was used can be felt worldwide. There are, however, no international laws governing freedom of speech, only the rights and freedoms of a civil society. And it is this civil society which should decide whether the film infringes upon our human rights.

In my opinion, it does and, according to the original thoughts behind the Constitution – the disseminating, or making public, of bad sentiments, destructive to the ends of society – it should be punished accordingly.

Text source: Findlaw.
  • Viktoria Michaelis.

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