GUEST OPINION: United States walks walk on free speech

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First Amendment Center
At the height of the controversy over the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act debate, critics of the bills described them as an assault on Internet freedom and the subversion of the First Amendment.

The advocates had a point. The proposed laws were arguably overbroad, and we should all be very careful before we give government greater latitude in shutting down websites.

Still, it’s striking to see what a real attack on Internet freedom looks like.

In the wake of deadly attacks by a terrorist who killed seven people over nine days in France, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that those who regularly visit “websites which support terrorism or call for hate or violence will be punished by the law.”

Obviously, no society is going to permit people to use the Web to organize attacks on fellow citizens. But in the United States, the First Amendment protects hateful websites and organizations. As long as there’s no active plotting or specific threats, ugly, intolerant, racist and hateful content can be freely posted.

The American Civil Liberties Union, among others, has taken a beating over the years for defending the free-speech rights of organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, but the principle that all Americans can express their viewpoints, however despicable, is at the core of this nation’s beliefs. A law limiting Americans’ right to visit hateful websites would not last long in American courts.

It’s a valuable reminder that even in nations that we associate with democratic values and artistic expression,  there’s rarely the same level of tolerance and respect for unpopular opinions or minority beliefs. France’s ban on the wearing of religious symbols, most notably Muslim headscarves, is just one more example.

In the wake of tragedies like 9/11 there are always temptations to trade freedom for greater security, but more often than not, Americans embrace liberty. Nations all over the globe speak about cherishing freedom. But by and large, the United States walks the talk.

Ken Paulson is president and chief executive officer/First Amendment Center. Previously, Paulson served as editor and senior vice president/news of USA Today and USATODAY.com.