Daniel Baer (U.S. State Department) on Freedom of Speech and Hostility to Religions

A generally very good discussion, I think, from a State Department online press conference on Sept. 27. One can debate whether or not some of the condemnation of certain kinds of speech might go a bit far (though it doesn’t go as far, I think, as the general condemnation of “denigration of religion” that I had earlier criticized). But that’s much less significant in this context, I think, than the detailed, repeated, and unembarrassed reaffirmation of free speech protection:

MR. BUFFINGTON: … As our first question, Satya Festiani from The Republika Online, her question is: What is the U.S. response over the video Innocence of Muslims? Is there any limitation to what kind of freedom of expression is allowed?

MR. BAER: Thanks very much. I – the response from – to the film itself has been made clear both by Secretary Clinton and President Obama in his speech to the UN this week where he said – repeated the statements that we’ve made numerous times now, which is that the content of that film is not something that the U.S. Government had anything to do with or that we support in any way. We reject that, the content of that film, as we reject any kind of film or other speech that would seem to be encouraging people to take hateful attitudes.

That being said, there are protections in international law and in domestic U.S. law for freedom of expression, and those protections are in place and have been in place for a long time. And they have good reasons. And the reasons are that while we certainly deplore the content of certain speech, we protect people’s right to say pretty much all manner of speech. There are some limitations. They are very, very, very limited limitations. And so the response to the film has been both to make clear that we do not in any way support the content or have any connection with it, as well as to reaffirm our commitment to freedom of expression.

I should say also that it’s not just the U.S. Government that deplores the content of this video. Many, many Americans who have no connection to the U.S. Government have made clear that they too are offended by the video. Of course, there are millions of Muslim Americans who – in our country, but also people of other faiths have made clear that they deplore the content of the video. So the response in this country has been quite, quite strong in terms of deploring the content of that video.

MR. BUFFINGTON: As a follow-up to Republika Online, do you think it’s possible the Muslim ask the government to curb Islamophobia in the same way as countries restrict anti-Semitic speech?

MR. BAER: I’m sure that there will be, and have been, requests for that. But I think one of the things that we’ve seen – and it should be clear to everybody that in the United States we do not restrict anti-Semitic speech; we don’t restrict offensive speech pertaining to any religion. Sometimes people think that we do restrict certain speech in certain ways related to religion. We don’t, across the board.

There are some countries that do. And one of the things that we’ve seen, not only do we think that that’s inconsistent with freedom of expression, but we’ve also seen that it’s not effective. Obviously the reason that people usually give for why they might restrict offensive speech is that they think that will help create a more tolerant society. And there’s been a recent study that’s come out, actually in the last month, that confirms again the reality that that’s just not the case. The Pew Foundation did a study of social attitudes around the world, and they found that where restrictions on religious expression are strongest, so is the social hostility toward minority religious groups, et cetera.

And so one of the arguments that we would make, and we have – there are countries that do restrict offensive speech about religion, and one of the arguments we would make is that the goals, the good goals that people might have in mind, aren’t met by those restrictions. And there are many, many costs to them because what ends up happening up happening, almost uniformly, invariably across the board, is that any kinds of justification for the government to punish people for speech ends up getting used for intentions that are not consistent with the original justification for such restrictions.

MR. BUFFINGTON: Now, following up on that question as well, what is your response that – to claims that the United States is harder on non-Western countries that restrict expression than it is on Western countries?

MR. BAER: We have an ongoing discussion with all countries about our support for freedom of expression, which many, many countries also support. And when we see laws or practices that are inconsistent with international universal norms, we call them out whether or not they are Western or not. Our Human Rights Reports – the State Department publishes Human Rights Reports on every country around the world every year, and our Human Rights Reports call out countries in Western Europe that have restrictions on freedom of expression, restrictions like the ones that were referenced in the previous question, restrictions on certain forms of hateful speech. So we are consistent in advocating for a universal standard that has only the very narrowest of limitations on freedom of expression.

MR. BUFFINGTON: We’ll take a question from Guruh Riyanto, the Radio News Agency in Indonesia: How is the U.S. going to assure Muslims that anti-jihad commercial created by Pamela Geller from AFDI and such – that such a campaign won’t spread hate – a hate campaign or hate crime?

MR. BAER: The campaign that you’re referring to is a campaign that put up several billboards in New York, and it’s clearly intended to be provocative. It’s too bad that somebody chose to do that. I would say that that’s really only one person. A lot of people in America think that that one person is not behaving in a very respectable way by doing that. Again, the intention to provoke or to offend people is not demonstrating any kind of respect. And so the content of those billboards and their – and the intent that seems to be behind them is not something that we endorse or support.

I would point out that there are a lot of people speaking. Obviously, there are 7 billion people on Earth. Some people will say offensive things. We can’t and we shouldn’t try to control everything that everybody says. But we also have to keep in mind that when there are 7 billion people speaking, we all have the opportunity to speak. We all have the opportunity to call out things that are offensive and say that’s just not true, it doesn’t hold up. We have the opportunity to challenge it, to respond to it in an affirmative way.

One of the things – there’s been some focus this week in the media on the ad campaign that your question references. There’s another ad campaign that’s been going on for several years here. There’s a foundation that has spent $10 million, instead of $6,000, which is what I understand was spent on the billboards that you mentioned. But there’s a campaign that has spent $10 million putting up billboards that talk about positive things, that tell the story of people who have fought back against disease, that tell the story of people who have come together from different communities, et cetera, and that ask us to pass on positive values like courage, like unity, like inspiration and dedication.

And so there are other examples of people using the public sphere to send messages, and I think those positive messages find much, much more resonance both among the American public and the public around the world. So I think the right response for all of us to take when we see something that is offensive is to respond using our own voice and to respond with affirmative messages.

MR. BUFFINGTON: Our next question, also from the Radio News Agency in Indonesia, from Agus Amsa. And he asks: After the controversial film Innocence of Muslims, President Susilo Bombang Yudhoyono is calling on the UN’s member states to adopt a legally binding instrument to ban blasphemy against religious symbols. Indonesia has a blasphemy prevention act since 1965, but the rule was often used as an excuse by the fundamentalists to push law enforcement agencies in order to crack down on minority groups with different beliefs on charges of blasphemy and in cases of intolerance, violence, and the legal verdict against Ahmadiyyas, Shias, or other beliefs are based on that rule. So how does the U.S. Government position – what’s the U.S. Government position on the call of the UN anti-blasphemy resolution?

MR. BAER: The international community came together last year around a resolution that was led by the OIC at the Human Rights Council, Resolution 16/18. And that represents a consensus way and has a concrete action plan for taking practical steps to combat the harms that befall persons because of religious intolerance. It talks about education and about bringing people together in interfaith dialogue. It talks about taking steps to improve law enforcement with respect to protecting people from discrimination and violence. And that’s a practical agenda that will actually help tackle the problem of intolerance. And that represents the consensus-based approach that the international community has gathered behind and that we continue to support.

In fact, Secretary Clinton hosted a meeting here in Washington to bring together experts from around the world to talk about the first steps for implementation of that resolution. And we continue to support further meetings in practically implementing the action plan that’s laid out in Resolution 16/18, which was also endorsed – there was a version in New York a few months later, Resolution 66/167, I believe. So that represents the current way forward. It’s a way forward that has consensus in the international community, and a way forward that tackles intolerance while protecting freedom of expression and freedom of religion.

Blasphemy laws do not help protect freedom of religion, and they obviously run counter to freedom of expression. It is important that we recognize that freedom of expression and freedom of religion go hand-in-hand, partly because the way that many of us exhibit our faith is through acts of expression – through what we wear, through displaying symbols, through talking about our beliefs. So any restrictions on expression necessarily are a threat to our freedom of religion.

Similarly, freedom of religion – religious content is an important part not only of sermons, but in many acts of expression in many different contexts. People use religious content in newspaper editorials. They use religious content in discussions at their family dinner table. So freedom of expression and freedom of religion are really intertwined, and we need to protect both. And we can protect both as we combat intolerance….

MR. BUFFINGTON: Richard Thomas from Muscat Daily in Oman, he asks: Given the strength of feeling felt in the Middle East and Oman following the anti-Islamic film, should religion be exempt from the concepts of freedom of expression?

MR. BAER: No, religion shouldn’t be exempt from the concepts of freedom of expression. Again, that would be a – that would actually be a threat, strangely, to freedom of religion. As long as all of us – all of us who are people of faith probably believe that our faith is the right faith, at least the right faith for us. And we want to have the right to be able to talk about that, to be able to say so. And if we removed religion from the purvey of freedom of expression, we would be subjecting ourselves, exposing ourselves to the risk that our faith might be the one that people decided wasn’t conforming to the status quo. And so it would be contrary to freedom of religion to exempt it from freedom of expression protections. We need to protect both freedom of expression and freedom of religion because they are mutually reinforcing.

MR. BUFFINGTON: Soumia Alloui from Algerian TV asks: Do you believe in absolute freedom of expression, or is it not freedom stops where freedom of others begins?

MR. BAER: There are some very narrow limitations on freedom of expression. There is a standard incitement to imminent violence, which it’s important to understand means that it’s a very narrow limitation. It means that you can’t have the time to talk through something. So for example, it might be somebody standing at the head of an angry mob and saying, “Go kill that guy over there, right there,” and the mob then turns to kill him. That could meet the standard of incitement to imminent violence. It is not, however – and it’s important to understand – it’s not, however, that there happens to be an angry mob that doesn’t like something that I say and, therefore, gets violent. The mob is responsible for their response in that case. That’s a response, not an order coming from the speaker. And so there are some very narrow limitations to freedom of expression. But in general, we think that the maximal freedom for each person to say what is on his or her mind, to speak his or her mind, is something that ought to be protected.

MR. BUFFINGTON: As our next question, Zulfatan Faizin from Metro TV in Jakarta asks: Are there any plans to bring Nakula to trial? There is the freedom of speech factor, but there is a possibility of charging him with hate crimes or inciting violence.

MR. BAER: The threshold of inciting violence would not be met, and the difference – there’s a difference between hate crimes and hate speech. They’re often conflated or used interchangeably. In the United States we do prosecute hate crimes. But the difference is that with hate crimes, there’s an underlying crime. There’s a criminal act, an act of violence, an act of, like, murder or beating someone up. If it is determined that somebody was killed because of animus toward that person because of his race or religion or sexual orientation or disability, that constitutes a hate crime. It is a crime that has the added component of being motivated by hate. Speech in and of itself is not a crime, and therefore, hate speech is different from a hate crime, and we do not prosecute hate speech….

MR. BUFFINGTON: Our next question is coming from Pakistan, Sairah Qureshi of the U.S. and Daily Times. She asks: What is your view on implementing programs that can reach out to communities in the U.S. against Islamophobia and indeed teaching tolerance of all religions, using a social and emotional learning approach? He says, “I believe proactive education is paramount.”

MR. BAER: I wholeheartedly agree with you, and there are a lot of people, both at the community level and at the national level, who are engaging in the kind of education programs that you’re talking about. One of the most inspiring stories that I heard in the last couple years was the story of a man who was an immigrant – a Muslim immigrant from Bangladesh to the United States who was attacked in a hate crime shortly after September 11. And he spent the better part of a decade lobbying for clemency for his attacker. And the story of his compassion has been one that has educated and moved so many people. It’s been a really inspiring story.

And there are so many opportunities. There have been great stories about interfaith collaboration in many, many communities across America, and the vast majority of Americans recognize that that challenge, the challenge of educating people to prevent this particular form of intolerance, is fully consistent with other challenges that we’ve faced in our past. It has always been that we have had to teach each other, had to debate and discuss, and that we come to a point where we have a better understanding of each other and can more readily embrace the diversity that has characterized our country for millions of years. I think that’s exactly right.

And in order to have that education, in order to be able to have that growing process, that process that combats intolerance, you have to have the openness of dialogue, you have to have a comfort and a confidence in greeting ideas, including offensive ideas, and being able to bat them down and say that’s just not true, that is not based in reality, that is offensive, that’s not what we stand for, that doesn’t characterize our society. And you do that through speech, not through violence, not through criminal prosecution. You do that through speech, and that gives you the upper hand….

MR. BUFFINGTON: The next question comes from – Hala Mohammed in Iraq asks: In any case – is there any case where U.S. society put a red line for freedom of expression?

MR. BAER: Is there any case where we would put a red line for freedom of expression? I assume you mean in terms of restrictions, and I think I kind of covered that already in terms of incitement to imminent violence, which is a very, very high standard. Obviously, we – that is a – I guess a red line. I would say that our red lines tend to be less on the restrictions and more on preserving the freedoms. And so we would put a red line on – against any kinds of efforts to impose restrictions on freedom of expression because a government decides that the speech is not helpful or because somebody finds it offensive or things like that.

MR. BUFFINGTON: Next question also – well, from Jakarta, Indonesia, Zulfatan Faizin at Metro TV asks, says: Bush signed a global anti-Semitism law. Why does it apply only – apply to anti-Semitism and not negative sentiments towards other religions or beliefs?

MR. BAER: That’s simply factually not true. There is no anti-Semitism law in the United States of America. We deplore anti-Semitism just as we deplore Islamophobia, just as we deplore hatred of any – of members of any minority group for their membership in that minority group. And while we deplore the content of anybody who speaks out and perpetuates that kind of hatred, we continue to protect freedom of expression. But there is no law. We do not have any favorites or privilege, any one group over another, in this respect. We protect speech, including offensive speech, across the board….