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The Value of Free Speech 

The Value of Free Speech

by Casey Dorman,  Editor-in-Chief

The terrorist assassination of editors, writers and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo because they published material derogatory to Islam (at least in the minds of some Muslims), cannot be condoned, explained away, or otherwise tolerated for any reason. Violence against those who express themselves, when carried out either as a form of retribution or as a method of intimidation, is beyond toleration. Much of the protest related to the Charlie Hebdo killings has had the aim of defending free speech and a free press. But lurking beneath the issue of the immorality of killing people because they express opinions, is the debate about respect for other’s religious beliefs vs. free speech.


Free speech is touted as a sacred right in democracies, but the limits to free speech that exist in many societies might surprise many people. “Genocide denial” (many times specific to Holocaust denial) in print or in speech is a punishable crime in 16 European nations, in the European Union and in Israel. In nearly all countries with a Muslim majority, including such disparate nations as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia, blasphemy against Islam is forbidden by law. Furthermore, this pattern is not confined to Muslim countries. Andorra, Cyprus, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Spain, Finland, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Lithuania, Norway, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Russian Federation, Slovakia, Switzerland, Turkey and Ukraine all have laws against “religious insult.” Greece prohibits blasphemy against God, the Greek Orthodox Church and “other tolerated religions.” Malta forbids blasphemy against the Roman Catholic Church and Italy forbids “vilification of religion.”


Does anyone impose a death penalty for blasphemy? The following countries do: Afghanistan, Egypt, Kuwait, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.


In France, where hundreds of thousands joined the “March for Unity,” to show their disapproval of the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket murders, and, not incidentally, to show defiance toward those who would threaten freedom of the press, it has become illegal to voice support of terrorists. A man who shouted support for the Kouachi brothers, the Charlie Hebdo attackers, was sentenced to six months in prison. And let us not forget that the wearing of veils by Muslim women has been outlawed and some women have been imprisoned for breaking that law.


One man’s freedom of expression, speech or press is another’s blasphemy or threat. The most obvious lesson to be learned from studying how laws against certain kinds of speech have been applied across the world is that, even when a country claims to defend freedom of speech, such a defense usually means speech that does not threaten or demean that country’s own sacred institutions or ideas. Complete freedom of speech is allowed nowhere. In the United States, laws protecting speech are the most comprehensive, and derogatory speech, even so-called “hate speech” directed toward a “protected individual or group,” is allowed unless it is judged as liable to incite “imminent” violence. However,  conservative legislators have for years been seeking a constitutional amendment that would make burning the American flag illegal, an act that the United States Supreme Court designated “symbolic speech.” In the Reporters Without Borders’ index of Freedom of the Press across 180 countries, the United States—which prides itself on freedom of speech and of the press—ranks about a quarter of the way down the list, at #46, a drop of 13 positions in the last year, a drop primarily due to government efforts to suppress and prosecute whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and Bradley (aka Chelsea) Manning and the seizure of the Associated Press’ phone records, as well as the threat of prosecution of journalists such as James Risen, all in the name of national security.

But despite the clear-cut hypocrisy found in Western democratic countries that protect free speech but also forbid denigration of the religion of their majority population, or that actively prosecute those whom the authorities in those countries  deem security threats, Western countries generally value freedom of speech more than do Middle Eastern, Asian, or Communist countries.


Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, uses research from around the world to demonstrate that, while all cultures value the same set of (six) moral dimensions, there are wide differences among cultures about which of those values are most highly prized. Western democratic countries place an emphasis upon moral principles that emphasize autonomy, the rights of individuals, and justice (fairness). Middle Eastern and Eastern countries emphasize respect for authority, the sanctity of religious and cultural figures, and loyalty to one’s group (religion, family, tribe, ethnicity). Both Islamic and Confucian traditions for centuries have favored these latter virtues. In the West, the enlightenment, with it’s emphasis upon the individual, has led cultures toward a different set of values. In the Middle East and East, where the cultural tradition a collectivistic one, the emphasis is upon the best interests of the society or group, rather than upon the individual. Another interesting finding from Haidt’s research was that virtually all cultures regard the moral values to which they give prominence as universal ones. That is, those cultures that do not agree with one’s own group’s values are judged as not merely different but as wrong. In the West, we staunchly, if often hypocritically, defend freedom of speech and freedom of the press as if those freedoms are inalienable rights that must be defended in all cultures. The Chinese, Vietnamese and Indians, to name three Asian countries, just as staunchly defend the need to restrict freedom of speech and the press in order to preserve respect for authority and order (and end up near the bottom of the Reporter Without Borders’ Freedom of the Press index). Most Muslim countries place the sanctity of their religion above all other values (also reducing their Freedom of the Press index score).

Who is right? Does it really make sense to say that freedom of the press trumps the sanctity of religious figures and have such a statement represent anything except a culturally specific statement of values? It can be true for France, or the United States, but why would it be true for Saudi Arabia, which prioritizes its values differently?  Similarly, the reverse must also be true: to say that sanctity of religious figures takes precedence over freedom of the press or free speech is to express a culturally specific value system. Can it be that each set of values is “right” for the culture in which that set is highly valued? Probably. But we live in a global society, with internet, social media and immigration making it impossible to maintain barriers that allow a society to isolate itself as a means of maintaining that society’s unique traditional values. The result of this globalization has been riots in Niger over cartoons in a French magazine and ethnocentric phobias about immigrants and the influence of their foreign cultures in Europe.


In some cultures and regions of the world, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are not valued as highly as are respect for order and authority or the maintenance of the sanctity of religious figures, while, within other cultures and regions, free speech and a free press are considered  basic rights that are necessary for a democratic country to remain democratic. If cultures and regions were isolated from one another, this situation would be fine. The restrictions of one group would remain barely known by another group and the insults to religious figures by the press in one country would be unknown in another country. Why would Frenchmen care if Vietnamese bloggers who raise questions about their own government are imprisoned? Or, given such isolation, if Charlie Hebdo wants to satirize Islam in a French publication, who in the Middle East would care?


Our present-day societies are neither isolated nor ethnically homogeneous. What happens in Vietnam is instant news throughout the Western world and sparks outrage among free-speech advocates in the West. Five to ten percent of the French population is Muslim, the highest number of Muslims in Western Europe, and they are insulted by caricatures of their most revered religious figure. And people, especially young and impressionable people, all over the world use the internet to find out what is happening in parts of the world they will probably never visit. Given such interconnectedness, is there a way for societies with different value systems to coexist?


The answer may come down to agreement about actions rather than agreement about words and ideas or even of values. Committing murder is a crime in all cultures and countries. So are arson and theft. Killing someone, burning his or her property or looting are all actions that are criminal, no matter where they are committed or by whom. So it is universally agreed that killing, burning or looting are not permissible ways to express one’s displeasure that his or her values have been violated. Even other practices that impose extreme pain upon an unwilling recipient are generally thought to be illegitimate, if not immoral by nearly all cultures.


What about those countries where killing or confiscating property are government-imposed or government sanctioned penalties for violating cultural values (e.g. committing blasphemy)? While one can express displeasure at such laws and government practices, it is not up to outside governments or citizens to interfere with carrying out such laws within a country’s boundaries. We can dislike a Saudi blogger being caned, and some might argue that the practice of caning itself is immoral because of the pain and suffering it causes, but the restriction of the blogger's free speech is not the issue so much as the type of punishment (and expressions of  displeasure and disapproval from around the world at least delayed such punishment recently). Other governments or citizens from other countries do not have a right to prevent punishment (within the bounds of what are generally considered legitimate types of punishment) for behaviors they consider of value, but are not so highly valued by the culture carrying out the punishment. 

Westerners are prone to talk about free speech and freedom of the press as though these are universal values that require protection throughout the world. Countries or cultures that do not subscribe to such values to the same extent as do Westerners  are condemned and denigrated as not as sophisticated as is the West. This is an ethnocentric point of view, fostered by the Western democratic, individualistic culture emerging from the enlightenment. Other cultures have different heritages and different values. It is is their right to have such values and incorporate them into their cultural practices. But carrying out criminal acts, including murder, against those in another country and culture who violate one’s values must be universally condemned.


References (2)

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Reader Comments (2)

The concept that cultures or sub-cultures can vary on the assumed importance of a hierarchy of elements in their belief systems and that different factions don't have the cultural experience to fairly criticize each other begs the real question: What is the proper response when these criticisms are elevated and become violent, murderous, unpardonable acts of repudiation from one culture to another?

January 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRichard

Richard: Thanks for the comment. That is exactly the point of the essay. The argument is not between which set of values is the correct one, but is about the response when someone else's values differ from yours. To kill others because they express values you don't agree with is the action that is unpardonable.

January 20, 2015 | Registered CommenterCasey Dorman

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