Most Americans, myself included, cherish the rights we enjoy under the First Amendment:
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.
Freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom to assemble- these are the foundation of our nation, and were not won easily or readily. Those who came to this country fleeing restrictions on one or another of these freedoms were aware of how unusual it was for this nation to affirm these liberties not just for those who are established or favored, but for all citizens.
So what happens when freedom of speech seems to collide with freedom of religion? Recent events across the Middle East suggest that for many, freedom to exercise their religion means that they would seek to limit the speech of others. Nor is the tension simply between the Muslim world and the Christian world. In our own country, some are bemoaning a “war on Christianity,” or a “war on religion” because of the limits that have been put on religious expression in public places.
President Obama, in his address to the United Nations on September 25, addressed the delicate balance required in respecting freedom of speech while at the same time respecting religious sensibilities.
In every country, there are those who find different religious beliefs threatening; in every culture, those who love freedom for themselves must ask themselves how much they are willing to tolerate freedom for others.
That is what we saw play out in the last two weeks, as a crude and disgusting video sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world. Now, I have made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video, and I believe its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity. It is an insult not only to Muslims, but to America as well – for as the city outside these walls makes clear, we are a country that has welcomed people of every race and every faith. We are home to Muslims who worship across our country. We not only respect the freedom of religion – we have laws that protect individuals from being harmed because of how they look or what they believe. We understand why people take offense to this video because millions of our citizens are among them.
I know there are some who ask why we don’t just ban such a video. The answer is enshrined in our laws: Our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech. Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs. As president of our country, and commander-in-chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so. Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views – even views that we profoundly disagree with.
Why is it so important to protect freedom of speech, even for those with whom we disagree and who may in fact be speaking ill of us and our beloved traditions? Obama reminded the assembly that:
. . . [O]ur founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views, and practice their own faith, may be threatened. . . . [I]n a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities.
The most powerful weapon to counter speech that we find distasteful, disrespectful, or hostile is another kind of speech- speech that affirms the values of respect and understanding that bind people together, rather than driving them apart.