Amid U.N. debate, different models on free speech

September 28, 2012 - 12:35 PM
India Prophet Film

Indian Muslims march towards the U.S. consulate during a protest rally against the film "Innocence of Muslims" that ridicules Islam's Prophet Muhammad, in Kolkata, India, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012. Thousands of angry Muslims have marched in Kolkata in eastern India to protest the anti-Islam film produced in the United States. (AP Photo/Bikas Das)

GENEVA (AP) — Amid the firestorm over an American film that mocks the Prophet Muhammad, the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva voted Friday on a resolution by a group of African and Latin American governments urging countries "to counter the dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred."

The developing world nations are essentially telling the West: Curb free speech that inflicts wounds based on race or religion. But the West is far from uniform on how to balance free speech rights it considers sacrosanct with efforts to tackle the spread of racial, ethnic or religious hatred.

The "Innocence of Muslims," an amateurish, privately produced U.S. video that mocked Muhammad's image, sparked deadly violence in some Islamic countries. The anger was enflamed by the publication of lewd caricatures of the prophet by French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.

The non-binding resolution from South Africa — on behalf of the Africa Group — as well as Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia, follows calls by the Arab League for the international community to criminalize blasphemy. The vote passed with 37 council members in favor, nine — including European Union members — abstaining and only the United States voting no.

Here is a look at different models for dealing with the conundrum of protecting freedom of expression, while ensuring that speech does not become hate crime.

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FRANCE: Dating back to the Revolution-era Declaration of the Rights of Man more than two centuries ago, France has enshrined protections of free speech. But in the aftermath of World War II, France also enacted a law that bans incitement to racial or religious hatred. It has a separate law prohibiting Holocaust denial. French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen — who was repeatedly convicted for anti-Semitic remarks — was fined €10,000 for "inciting racial hatred" for disparaging remarks against Muslims made in a 2003 newspaper interview. That was just a year after he shocked France, home to western Europe's largest Muslim community, by qualifying for the presidential race runoff against President Jacques Chirac.

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GERMANY: Freedom of speech is guaranteed by the constitution, and in one prominent case in the 1990s, the country's top court allowed the use of the slogan "soldiers are murderers." However, "incitement of the people," defined as fomenting hatred for a segment of the population, is a crime — an effort to prevent use of tactics employed by the Nazis against the Jews. In 1994, a paragraph was added explicitly forbidding denial of the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes. In 2009, the constitutional court affirmed limitations on speech that endorses neo-Nazi views, citing "an exceptional circumstance" considering the country's Nazi past. In Austria, which like Germany bans Holocaust denial, British writer David Irving served 13 months in prison after being convicted in 2006 on charges that he denied the Nazis exterminated 6 million Jews during World War II.

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AUSTRALIA: Australia has no explicit legal right to free speech in its constitution. However, its High Court in 1992 ruled that the constitution implied that a right to free political speech exists. Last year, a popular right-wing commentator was found guilty of breaking discrimination law by implying that fair-skinned Aborigines chose to identify as indigenous for profit and career advancement. Federal Court Justice Mordy Bromberg ruled that fair-skinned Aborigines were likely to have been "offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated by the imputations" included in columnist Andrew Bolt's articles published by the Herald Sun newspaper in Melbourne in 2009. The Racial Discrimination Act is not enforced by prison sentences or fines, but enables judges to make orders to correct breaches.

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BRITAIN: Britain sometimes limits freedom of speech when it is judged to incite people to violence. That was the case with Abu Hamza al-Masri, the radical Muslim cleric imprisoned for his fiery diatribes urging jihad, or holy war, against the West. In Britain, it is illegal to use threatening language to incite racial or religious hatred.

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UNITED STATES: In the United States, today a land of no-holds-barred talk radio, the Constitution's First Amendment says Congress "shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech." But in an unanimous opinion on the government's ability to regulate speech during the World War I draft, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. argued that Congress can bar use of words in some circumstances that "are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger" — such as "a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic." Speaking to the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Tuesday, President Barack Obama said free speech is sacrosanct in the United States. "The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression," he said, "it is more speech — the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy."

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Associated Press writers Juergen Baetz in Berlin, Jesse Holland in Washington D.C., Gregory Katz in London and Kristen Gelineau in Sydney contributed to this report.