Freedom of Expression-The Gray Areas

no picture High School Junior
Irene Ameena
Member since October 25, 2015
  • 4 Posts
  • Age 19

Picture this: me in fourth grade, annoyed at another student because they continue to sing loudly when I am trying to get my division problems done. When I tell the student to quit, I receive an answer I have no idea how to contest with: “I don’t have to stop! Freedom of speech!” The scenario is commonplace and the phrase, trite. I doubt that James Madison had this situation in mind when crafting the Bill of Rights;“freedom of speech” has become a phrase so widely misused, so often misconstrued, and so easily taken away from those who need it most. One needs only to look at the latest headlines to get a glimpse of how the freedom of speech or expression stirs up controversy- not only in the United States, but all over the world; perhaps, looking at the gray areas will hint as to what measures need to be taken to ensure that the intended significance of the phrase- if there is one- is embodied in all countries that preach the allowance of the right to expression.

In Iran, two poets, Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Musavi, have recently been sentenced to lengthy prison terms (11.5 and 9 years respectively) for “insulting the sacred” and using “propaganda against the state” in their poems- even though they received approval from the Ministry of Islamic Guidance before legally publishing their works. Iran has also detained at least 46 journalists for peaceful activities over the last year — including the Washington Post's reporter Jason Rezaian, who is currently imprisoned for espionage in the infamous Evin prison. Writers enjoy certain liberties when crafting their works, but these detainees are often subject to torture and public floggings because they have expressed “anti-state” beliefs in their works. Iran’s constitution frames a vague outline of the freedom of press: “publications and the press have freedom of expression except when it is detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public.” it then goes on to say that details of “this exception will be specified by law” (Foundation for Iranian Studies.) Some may argue that the constitution does lay the foundation for these arrests, but looking at an earlier section of the constitution offers a clear contradiction. Article 3, Section 8 states that the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has the duty of directing its resources to ensure “the participation of the entire people in determining their political, economic, social, and cultural destiny.” This statement distinctly belies the earlier exceptions to the freedom of the press, and it took my breath away. If you want to ensure that the Iranian people have a share in really understanding and developing their identities and destinies, there should be no exception to the freedom of expression! Participation involves a having a part, or a share, in something according to Merriam-Webster, and the first step to making sure Iranian people actively contribute to the embodiment of Iranian ideals and the country’s shaping of its cultural and social destiny is to allow complete freedom of expression.

On the other hand, the total freedom of speech allowed by the US Constitution has led to debates such as the one over the infamous and long-standing Muhammad cartoon controversies. These feature the Islamic prophet Muhammad in degrading or prejudiced situations. The controversy began outside the United States, in 2005, when Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of cartoons showing Muhammad as a terrorist holding a bomb. Protests began to spread across the Middle East in January of 2006, when Norwegian newspaper Magizanet reprinted the cartoons. On January 30th, gunmen raided the EU’s offices in Gaza, demanding an apology over the cartoons, resulting in the original Danish paper apologizing for publishing the cartoons. The conflict didn’t end, however. Newspapers in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain reprinted the caricatures in defiance, and the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo republished the cartoons along with its own front page of Mohammed, saying: “It’s hard to be loved by imbeciles.” Danish and Norwegian embassies were attacked across the Middle East, but everyone who had published the offensive cartoons cited their freedom of expression. In December of 2012, two Muslim organisations launched legal proceedings against Charlie Hebdo, accusing it of inciting racial hatred. A month later, Charlie Hebdo released a 65-page special edition illustrated- and offensive- biography of the Muslim prophet. This past January, the conflict boiled to a climax when Charlie Hebdo’s new Paris offices were attacked by armed gunmen, killing 12, after publishing an issue featuring a fictional vision of France under Islamic rule in 2022 described as 'Islamophobic’ by critics. Then in May, two gunmen were shot dead after opening fire at an art exhibition in Texas where a contest featuring offensive caricatures of Muhammad was being held. So who is at fault, besides the attackers themselves? It’s obvious that violence is never the answer, but are Charlie Hebdo, the other publications, and the hosts of the art contest at fault? Charlie Hebdo especially had been involved in the cartoon controversy for many years, and obviously was aware of the implications and consequences these caricatures had. The competitors at the art exhibit in Texas arguably recogized that the cartoons were offensive to Muslims, but still held the competition, welcoming over 300 pieces depicting Muhammad. But does intention play a part in the conflict? Does the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which ensures freedom of speech, excuse the resulting breach of peace between Muslim and non-Muslim communities? The Supreme Court’s statement on the topic in 1942 best summarizes the idea that freedom of speech does stop somewhere, even in the United States, where it is hailed as a landmark of liberty. Justice Frank Murphy assured that “there are certain well-defined and limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise a Constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous and the insulting or “fighting” words – those which by their very utterances inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace." Later controversies over what exactly defined “fighting” words arose- like the 1969 Supreme Court’s allowance of the Ku Klux Klan’s hate speech- proving that freedom of speech in the US, like in other countries, is often open to interpretation by authoritative figures of the time.

It is this opportunity for interpretation that leads to varying ideas on what freedom of expression really means. While Iranian officials assert the right to imprison those who express beliefs they view as threats to their own ideals, the American people cry out for the protection of the freedom of press/speech, even when the ideas express degrade important figures of others' faiths. The similarities that can be drawn up between two situations which initially seem to be on polar ends surprised me- is the fourth-grade cliche a proper definition of freedom of speech, or does the impact of the speech/expression have to be factored in as well? It's worth talking about.

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