|Craig Parshall, General Counsel|
December 14, 2011
It is a startling day in Washington when both liberals and conservatives cry out against an Administration proposal on the grounds that it tramples free speech. But that is exactly what has happened as a result of the State Department’s concerted embrace, on Monday, of United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) Resolution 16/18, which seeks to stamp out “intolerance [and] negative stereotyping” of persons “based on religion or belief.”
The State Department meeting in Washington invited representatives of the press and some public interest groups, but has extracted pledges of secrecy from them about the details of the plan. The U.N.’s global initiative, called “The Istanbul Process,” grew out of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s participation last July in the conference hosted by the Saudi-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The OIC tried for some 12 years to get the U.N. to pass a “defamation of religion” measure that would condemn those who criticize Islam. Observers now cite the “Istanbul Process” as the new substitute for the OIC’s prior call for a U.N.-sponsored, free-speech killing, anti-blasphemy provision. Law Professor Jonathan Turley, widely considered to be on the liberal side of the spectrum, calls the U.S. State Department move a “disturbing agenda.” He notes that the initiative is aimed at “criminalizing intolerance [and] negative stereotyping” based on religion, and says that “the unstated enemy” in this U.S.-sponsored movement “is free speech.”
Nina Shea, a Commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (which the Senate voted to re-authorize this week, but only after overcoming a "hold" placed by Senator Dick Durbin, D-IL), was at Monday's meeting. She calls the whole conference a “very bad idea” and has grave doubts that the State Department’s assurances of protecting free speech will ring true. Commissioner Shea has a point. I have examined the United Nations HRC Resolution 16/18 that the United States has endorsed. In its 32 paragraphs, the phrase “free speech,” or any linguistic derivative, is conspicuously missing. Instead, there are two anemic references to such things as “dialogue” and “respectful debate of ideas.” Most shocking of all is the notion that the U.S. would endorse a proposal that radically alters First Amendment law. The Supreme Court has been careful to keep a very short, narrow list of exceptions to free speech, such as “incitement to imminent violence.” The Istanbul Process replaces that with language that would seek to suppress any speech that commits not only incitement to actual violence, but also “incitement to discrimination [or] hostility…” based on religion. Those of us who have fought for freedom of speech, and those advocates of true religious freedom around the world, can see the handwriting on the wall. And it is calling us to be vigilant.