Uprisings in the Middle East, sparked in Libya and Egypt have called into question the notion of free speech and its consequences.
One of the big factors in the uprisings, according to the U.S. government, has been a low-budget video made by a California filmmaker. The video was uploaded to YouTube a couple of months ago but only recently reached the region, and depicts the Muslim prophet Muhammad in a negative light. Some protesters have spoken out against the government, despite its denouncing the film and affirming no association to it in any way.
YouTube, which hosts the video and blocked it in Libya and Egypt, is a private corporation, unassociated with the U.S. government. Videos posted on the site must conform to certain guidelines, that long list of things most of us don't bother to read when agreeing to a website's terms of conditions. But, if a video doesn't meet those terms, its content is flagged and will likely be taken down.
The First Amendment provides protection of freedom of speech, and ensures that government doesn't prohibit a citizen's right to that speech. Companies like YouTube, Facebook and Google, however, are corporate entities that aren't meant to be seen as guardians of free speech; it's not their first responsibility. Instead, those businesses are seeking a profit, providing services that attract vast numbers of online users who abide by their terms and conditions. Businesses online aren't meant to be enforcers of free speech, but rather owners of their own digital property.
With this video, freedom of speech is under scrutiny once again and, thankfully, time after time the Supreme Court has defended it. Enjoying the right of free speech comes with responsibility and tolerance for different opinions. Though many disagree with the message of Westboro Baptist Church, their right to free speech, in the form of public protests, must be protected. Freedom of speech also covers those who choose not to speak. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.
The freedom of choice and speech, that's the prime right guaranteed to us in the Bill of Rights.
Countries in the Middle East operate under a different set of government models, many of which are theocratic in nature. Religious leaders not only have an influential role in the community, but in the government as well.
In addition to unrest prompted by the video, unemployment in the area also needs consideration. The unemployment rate in Libya is somewhat difficult to track down, but in the last known report in 2009, it was 20.7 percent. For citizens under 20 years old, however, it was around 50 percent. Unemployment rates in Egypt have hovered between 8 and 12 percent since 1999.
It must also be emphasized that the entire population of Libya or Egypt, or other countries involved in the unrest, aren't taking part in the protests. Most of the country's citizenry have day jobs and come home to family in the evenings.
But, to spin a well-known phrase, with the great power of freedom of speech comes great responsibility. There are consequences to speech. If we're able to make public statements, we must be responsible to defend them and admit our faults, should they come along. Many of us can recall moments where friends, or ourselves, have put messages on Twitter or Facebook in an angry rush.
As more information about the attacks in Libya and Egypt arise, we can be thankful for disagreements, particularly civil ones. It's not our way to react violently to films. Even when the 2006 British film “Death of a President” depicted the fictional assassination of President Bush, there weren't demonstrations against it. Most chose to ignore the movie, if they even knew about it, opting for the more entertaining Robin Williams flick “Man of the Year.”
It's our hope the United States continues to set the standard for free speech in the world.