Editorial: All hail the First Amendment
"It is frightening to think that a "un-elected" human rights panel has the right to decide what can and cannot be published in a free country."
On the Fourth of July, the day we celebrate America's liberty and independence, it's worth contemplating how much more free America is than most other nations in the West. Why? The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
How very much depends on these 45 words:
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.
"The First Amendment really does distinguish the U.S., not just from Canada but from the rest of the Western world," says writer Mark Steyn, who's learning it the hard way. Mr. Steyn and Maclean's, the top-selling Canadian magazine, have faced human rights charges in British Columbia. Their alleged offense? Maclean's published a Steyn essay critical of Islam, which prompted Muslim activists to file formal charges accusing the writer and the magazine of violating Canada's hate-speech laws.
Last Friday, the national Human Rights Commission dismissed the charges, but they're still pending in front of a provincial panel. The victory is less than what it appears. For one thing, defending against the charges cost the magazine hundreds of thousands of dollars. For another, it is frightening to think that a human rights panel has the right to decide what can and cannot be published in a free country.
It's not just Canadian critics of Muslims whose speech is under attack. The Alberta Human Rights Commission ruled that the Rev. Stephen Boissoin had broken the country's hate-speech laws by criticizing homosexuals. Last month, the panel ordered the minister to pay damages, apologize and desist from criticizing homosexuality for the rest of his life.
Similarly, the Ontario Human Rights Commission recently ordered a large Christian social service ministry to abandon its statement of faith as discriminatory against gays and to send its employees to diversity training.
Free speech also is in trouble in Europe. Last month, a French court fined actress and animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot $23,000 for violating hate-speech laws. Complaining about Islamic sheep-slaughtering customs, Ms. Bardot had said Muslims were "destroying" France. In May, British police arrested a teenager for calling Scientology a "cult" at a peaceful demonstration.
Also that month, police in The Netherlands arrested Dutch cartoonist Gregorius Nekschot on suspicion of incitement to hatred and discrimination for cartoons alleged to be anti-Muslim. The Dutch police, who have established a branch to investigate cartoons, recently brought in proprietors of a Website critical of multiculturalism to explain comments left on the site.
None of this could have happened in the United States, where the right to say what's on your mind, no matter whose feelings it may hurt, is considered vital to the self-government of a free people. The First Amendment means that in our liberal democracy, we have to tolerate speech many of us find obnoxious or offensive. But it affirms that enduring hateful or distasteful oratory is far less dangerous than giving taboos on controversial speech the force of law.
It is not too much to say that all of our freedoms depend on the First Amendment, for if we cannot speak and worship freely, we are on the road to tyranny. On Independence Day, and every day, we must be grateful for the foresight of the Founders, who understood as no others in their position had before or have since, how sacred freedom of speech is
When Thomas Jefferson famously said that he would rather have newspapers without a government than government without newspapers, he meant that freely and widely expressed opinions are the true foundation for a successful government of the people, by the people and for the people.
---------------"I wonder what Jefferson would say about our current 'Free Press'?"
In an observation that cannot be improved upon, the Colonial-era Freeman's Journal editorialized: "As long as the liberty of the press continues unviolated, and the people have the right of expressing and publishing their sentiments upon every public measure, it is next to impossible to enslave a free nation."
God bless America – and God bless the First Amendment, which protects and serves rich and poor, liberals and conservatives, secularists and believers, and all those privileged to call themselves Americans.