Giving thanks: why we can’t take free speech for granted

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

In a week in which Americans traditionally give thanks, two incidents beyond our shores remind us not to take freedom of expression for granted.

In China, Zhai Xiaobing’s tweet on Nov. 5 jokingly linking a popular horror movie to the Nov. 8 Communist Party congress led to his arrest on charges of supporting terrorism.

His tweet, which said “An earthshaking debut will be seen at the global premiere on Nov. 8!,” was apparently a reference to the Great Hall of the People.

Wen Yunchao, a free-speech advocate, posted a petition asking authorities to drop the case, according to the Associated Press.

“We solemnly request that Beijing police find a little sense of humor and not make a big deal out of nothing,” he wrote. “In particular, do not destroy the goodwill and anticipation the public has for the new office holders after the 18th party congress by limiting and persecuting an ordinary citizen’s normal freedom of speech in such a groundless fashion.”

Meanwhile, two women have been charged in India because of a Facebook post.

Mumbai was largely shut down Nov. 18 during the funeral of a prominent politician tied to past mob violence, prompting 21-year-old Shaheen Dhada to post that the closures were “due to fear, not due to respect.” A friend “liked” the post.

According to the AP, both women were arrested and charged with creating enmity and hatred. Dhada withdrew the comment and both women apologized. They are now free on bail.

In a nation in which we so often post provocative, pointed and controversial content on social media, it’s sobering to see other nations treat tweets, Facebook posts and even a Facebook “like” as crimes.

Contrast that with a decision in a federal court earlier this year stemming from a wrongful-termination case.

U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson concluded that pressing a “like” button is so inconsequential that it doesn’t even amount to speech.

“Merely ‘liking’ a Facebook page is insufficient speech to merit constitutional protection,” Jackson noted. “In cases where courts have found that constitutional speech protections extended to Facebook posts, actual statements existed within the record.”

In time, other U.S. courts are likely to find that “likes” are protected free expression, but the contrast between nations remains striking. In India, pushing a like button leads to a criminal charge while in the U.S., it’s seen as a minimal gesture in an unfettered marketplace of ideas.

Social media in this country will remain robust and vibrant because even the newest media are protected by the oldest of American values embodied in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. And for that we should be thankful.

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