An American midsummer night’s reflection: freedom

Sunday, July 26, 2009

OK, so Memorial Day and July 4th have gone by, it’s about six weeks until
Constitution Day, the anniversary of the Bill of Rights doesn’t arrive until
Dec. 15 … and it’s the middle of summer.

None of those annual calendar prompts are conveniently available to cause us
to celebrate America’s basic freedoms … and it’s the middle of summer, for gosh

But elsewhere in the world, people are thinking about their freedoms and in
all too many cases, governments are doing their best to deny their citizens the
basic rights of free expression and religious liberty protected here by our
First Amendment.

Twitter is causing jitters in the world’s most populous nation. News reports
say that China — perhaps after analyzing the role “tweets” had in fueling
anti-government, post-election protests in Iran — has blocked Internet and cell-phone services following ethnic riots in western areas of
the nation. Social-networking sites like Facebook, along with Chinese
equivalents, were censored or blocked or both to prevent wide discussion about
the violent incidents. According to blogger and columnist Arianna Huffington,
Web sites and Internet postings were even “scrubbed” of videos and links that
showed turmoil.

The Associated Press reported this month that the Chinese lockdown on these
new means of communication began in March, after the appearance of YouTube
videos showing security officials in possible confrontation with Tibetan citizens — a very sensitive subject for China’s leaders. And while the world
took note on June 4 of the 20th anniversary of the demonstrations for freedom in
Tiananmen Square and the brutal crackdown that followed, those videos and voices
among the nation’s near-300 million Internet users were, in effect,
electronically gagged.

In contrast, Americans of all political persuasions in recent weeks have
watched, discussed and debated the values and credentials of veteran Judge Sonia
Sotomayor, nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Barack Obama. The
federal appeals court judge and her White House nominator were criticized,
analyzed, toasted and roasted all without government crackdown on critics or
advocates. Meanwhile in Egypt, civil rights activists celebrated the acquittal
of a poetry teacher who had been brought to trial — and initially sentenced to
three years in jail — after his poem about oppression, which he wrote only for
himself, fell into the hands of security police. The educator had been charged
with insulting the nation’s president.

OK, it is the middle of summer, and vacation time for many of us, at that.
Not the usual moments when most of us, if ever, stop to think about our First
Amendment freedoms to worship, speak, write, gather, protest and talk back to
the government.

For me, the impetus to consider such themes was a recent chance to spend time
with about 20 intriguing, inquisitive students from India, Pakistan and
Bangladesh. The group of students, in a U.S. State Department sponsored program,
has been spending a lot time thinking about America’s freedoms, studying the
past month or so at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Consider their questions: Are there really no blasphemy laws in the U.S.? As
fewer and fewer media moguls own more and more media outlets in their countries,
where will minority voices appear, given that there is no First Amendment to
keep a government from favoring voices that prosper by favoring it? How do we
draw the line between hateful speech that contains ideas which wound and hate
speech that can lead to real wounds?

I’d like to say that I had answers that lived up to the challenge of their
questions, but they will be the best judge of that: No, we have no enforceable
laws (a few remain on the books) that preclude what some would consider
blasphemy when criticizing religion. Yes, we are very fortunate that the First
Amendment protects disparate voices, from mainstream media to Twittering
pioneers, from being suppressed by government. And we do draw a fine but strong
line between accepting that some ideas will hurt and prosecuting the true
threats that will harm. The reason: A true marketplace of ideas includes those
that the majority would rather not hear.

There’s nothing wrong with leaving the world’s cares behind on a warm
summer’s night, or taking a break from harsh realities to kick back a bit on

But pause for just a moment, if you will, to consider America’s freedoms and
how fortunate we are even as others struggle or are denied their basic rights —
whether or not the day is marked by banners and bunting. And even though, yes,
indeed, it’s the middle of summer.

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First
Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: