“I happen to know from personal experience how challenging legislating can be, how much work and compromise it takes, how thick your skin has to be, because after all,democracy invites the widest range of opinions and interests in a society to participate. Laws that abridge or punish the exercise of universal human rights, including the right to free expression, free assembly, and free association, have no place in democracies.

In the United States, as President Obama said in his address to the General Assembly, we don’t ban offensive speech, whether it’s an insult to a person’s deeply held religious beliefs or a denial of the Holocaust, because we know that such laws can too easily be used as tools of oppression.”

Secretary Clinton at G-8 Deauville Partnership With Arab Countries, September 28, 2012

Freedom of expression is a universal human right and has strong protections in the United States.

While the United States condemns hateful speech and we deplore speech that deliberately denigrates believers of any religion, we do not ban it.  Banning and punishing offensive or hateful speech is neither an effective approach to combating intolerance nor an appropriate role for government to play.  Suppressing ideas never makes them go away.  In fact, to do so can be counter-productive, raise the profile of the offensive ideas, and force hateful ideologies to fester in dangerous ways.

“I know there are some who ask why we don’t just ban such a video. And 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 — (laughter) — and I will always defend their right to do so.“

- President Obama, Remarks to UN General Assembly, September 25, 2012

We believe the best antidote to offensive and hateful speech is dialogue that counters and responds to such speech by refuting it, causing the hateful speech to fall under its own weight.  The United States also undertakes a number of proactive measures to counter intolerance.  For example, government officials speak out against such speech at the highest levels and we urge others to do the same.  We also enforce a robust combination of legal protections against discrimination and hate crimes, and engage in governmental outreach to minority and other populations.

We also educate; foster interfaith discussions; urge political, religious, and societal leaders to speak out and condemn offensive expression; create mechanisms to identify and address areas of tension between communities; train government officials on outreach strategies; and encourage leaders to discuss causes of discrimination and potential solutions with their communities.

The international community has endorsed a similar kind of practical, effective approach that protects freedoms of expression and religion in UNGA resolution 66/167.  As Secretary Clinton said at the Istanbul ministerial which launched the implementation of this UN initiative, “Under this resolution, the international community is taking a strong stand for freedom of expression and worship, and against discrimination and violence based upon religion or belief. These are fundamental freedoms that belong to all people in all places, and they are certainly essential to democracy.

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Dan Baer takes questions on the U.S. position on freedom of expression. Transcript available at same link.


Policy References

…there should be no debate about the simple proposition that violence in response to speech is not acceptable. We all – whether we are leaders in government, leaders in civil society or religious leaders – must draw the line at violence. And any responsible leader should be standing up now and drawing that line.” – Secretary Clinton, Comments on Violence in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, September 13, 2012

“Banning and punishing offensive and hateful speech is neither an effective approach to combating such intolerance, nor an appropriate role for government in seeking to promote respect for diversity.  As President Obama stated in a speech delivered in Cairo, Egypt in June 2009, suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away.”Curtailing Freedom of Religion is Not the Way to Combat Hateful Speech, August 2012

“We believe an approach such as “defamation of religions” entails a slippery slope, and endangers the very freedom of expression that international human rights treaties are designed to protect and that is essential in a democratic society.”USG Response to OHCHR regarding the Defamation of Religion resolution, August 2009

“Walls that divide the internet are easier to erect than to maintain. Our government will continue to work very hard to get around every barrier that repressive governments put up, because governments that have erected barriers will eventually find themselves boxed in.” - Secretary Clinton, Coalition for Freedom Online, December 2011

U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division on Protecting Religious Freedom (external site)

“The inseparable freedoms of expression and religion are important not for abstract reasons. When they are allowed to flourish, we see religious harmony, economic prosperity, societal innovation and progress, and citizens who feel their dignity is respected. When these freedoms are restricted, we see violence, poverty, stagnation, and feelings of frustration and even humiliation. These are not mere assertions but demonstrable facts.”    - Ambassador Donahoe, Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Religion are Inseparable, September 25, 2012

“But the truth we have learned, through a lot of trial and error over more than 235 years in our country, is that we defend our beliefs best by defending free expression for everyone, and it lowers the temperature.  It creates an environment in which you are free to exercise and to speak about your religion, whether your neighbor or someone across the town agrees with you or not. In fact, the appropriate answer to speech that offends is more speech.”Secretary Clinton at the first implementation meeting for UN HRC Resolution 16/18

“The idea that citizens can and should press their governments to do better and to be better has caught on all over the world. It is not surprising that some governments find this threatening. Some react by blaming outside forces for violating their sovereignty and stirring up dissent. To us, these groups are only gathering and amplifying indigenous voices that have too long been silenced. But to their governments they pose a threat to stability and to their own power.”  – Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael H. Posner,Lantos Commission Testimony on Civil Society and Human Rights, May 17, 2012

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