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Ban on religious defamation would violate free speech

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 28, 2009 - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a strong statement Monday in opposition to the efforts of Islamic countries to make "religious defamation" a violation of human rights.

"Some claim that the best way to protect the freedom of religion is to implement so-called anti-defamation policies that would restrict freedom of expression and the freedom of religion," Clinton said. "I strongly disagree."

Clinton made the statement as the State Department released its annual appraisal of religious freedom around the world. The report criticized the effort by the 57 states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to advance the concept of "defamation of religions" in the United Nations. The Islamic countries have introduced annual resolution in the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly.

"While the United States deplores actions that exhibit disrespect for particular religious traditions, including Islam," the report said, "we do not agree with the 'defamation of religions' concept because it is inconsistent with the freedoms of religion and expression."

The State Department comments addressed criticisms that some First Amendment advocates have directed at the Obama administration for failing to insist on the same robust protections of free speech that exist in the United States.

Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment expert at UCLA Law School, said he was pleased by not entirely satisfied by the administration's statement. He noted that the administration had supported prohibitions on the "advocacy of ... religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence." By contrast, the Constitution protects advocacy of religious hatred unless it is an incitement to imminent lawless action, Volokh pointed out.

Michael Posner, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for human rights, democracy and labor said Monday, "The notion that a religion can be defamed and that any comments that are negative about that religion can constitute a violation of human rights to us violates the core principle of free speech."

He said the U.S. will push in the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly for distinguishing between harassment and defamation. "There are limits to free expression and there are certainly concerns about people targeting individuals because of their religious belief or their race or their ethnicity," he said. "But at the same time, we're also clear that a resolution, broadly speaking, that talks about the defamation of a religion is a violation of free speech."

Much of the anger that fuels the Islamic countries' efforts to ban defamation arises from the 2005 publication in a Danish newspaper of a dozen controversial cartoons depicting Mohammad and connecting the prophet to terrorism. Protests against publication of the cartoons led to the loss of 200 lives.

Even though it is clearly legal to publish the cartoons in the United States, the Yale University press recently decided to remove the cartoons from a book by a Brandeis University scholar, Jytte Klausen. Klausen's book argues that much of the response to the Muslim world's reaction to the cartoons was not spontaneous, but rather the result of orchestrated efforts to whip up anti-Western passions. Klausen argues that her academic freedom is violated by the removal of the cartoons; Yale press argues that it based its decision on recommendations of security experts.

William H. Freivogel is a professor in the Southern Illinois University's School of Journalism, a contributor to St. Louis Public Radio and publisher of the Gateway Journalism Review.