14 Sep

Words of Power and Civility: Free Speech on Libya, Egypt and Israel, By Louise Annarino, September 13, 2012

As Associate Director of Legal Affairs at Ohio University in Athens,Ohio, I was asked each autumn to speak to the newly-arrived International students regarding American laws, and what they needed to know to avoid legal problems while studying in the United States. I started ,as is my usual practice,with the U.S. Constitution. I then described our judicial structure, the difference between civil and criminal law, and the role of local police, state highway patrol and the FBI.  There were 2 areas students were most interested in:  traffic laws and 1st Amendment free speech issues.

Freedom of speech was a phenomenally novel concept to many of our students,whose first reaction was to question whether I had misspoken, or they had misunderstood. When I explained we could even burn our flag as show of political protest, several students inevitably leapt to their feet. This seemed beyond the pale to them, as it is for many of us. We discussed how free speech did face limits through reasonable regulations meant to keep the peace;for example,one cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theatre. I also explained that it was often a component of active civil disobedience for which dissidents must expect consequences, often a stint in jail. I told them about The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, and Ghandi’s peaceful resistance campaign against British occupation of India. I cautioned them to understand that Americans guard free speech, even when the speech is uncomfortable, inane, even hateful. We even have a children’s rhyme “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me” as a model for controlling our response to speech with which we disagree, or which is used to “attack” us. Police may intervene only to keep the peace;not to stop speech.

I have been thinking about these afternoons exploring what free speech meant to these students, what impact their new insights into American law and cultural mores would mean once they returned home. This programmed afternoon event led to many on-going friendships with students who would stop by my office to discuss American law and the Bill of Rights in the privacy of my office. We talked about African-Americans knocked off their feet by water hoses, attacked by dogs, clubbed by police as they marched for civil rights and an end to Jim Crow laws. We talked about American anti-war activists. We talked about American terrorists: KKK, Aryan Nation, CCC and other such fanatic fringe groups around the world, and their threat to civilized societies. We developed a common understanding about the dangers such groups posed not simply to life and limb but to free speech,freedom of assembly,freedom of religion, of the press etc.;and, to the very survival of government by the people. For violence breeds contempt for the speech of those who use it to instigate such violence.

I think about these young men today. I wonder what they expect of us;and,what we can expect of them. The theatre we discussed is no longer a crowded building; but, an internet of social media and viral videos. When a hate-monger on one side of the world shouts out hate-speech to arouse and instigate a response, violence on the other side of the world too often erupts. We must be sensitive to the fact that America has been blessed with immigrant influxes,especially along our coasts, which opens American society to cultural differences and reduces tribalism. Countries emerging from tribal structures to begin building democratic republics need our calming influence on such forces;not an aggressive disdain for their struggles. “Chest beating” does nothing to build the good will needed to strengthen the hand of those  fighting off the fanatic fringe. A policy of diplomacy and dignity, tolerance and respect for diversity, guidance and support for democratic reform shows President Obama’s power as a statesman. This is not a sign of weakness; but, of strength. Because he is a strong man who knows how to use the power of his office, and his personal power, he does not need to beat his chest.

“Violence as a response to speech has no place,” in society says Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

After condemning the attacks and the death of our Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others, “Justice will be done,” says President Obama.

“It’s disgraceful that the Obama administrations’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks,” said the Romney campaign.

Rence Priebus, Chairman of the Republican Party tweeted, “Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic.”

Today, Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney and FOX news continued to lie about President Obama’s response in an effort to undermine his national security accomplishments, and undermine his leadership at home and abroad. Is this the action of patriots? When Americans are being attacked and killed, when we have American troops and diplomats in the field, when we should be decrying ignorant and malicious rhetoric we have a candidates for president and vice-president throwing fuel on the fires burning abroad. They blame not only President Obama but those in diplomatic service whose lives are being licked by the flames.

While diplomatic efforts by Obama and Clinton to assure the world the United States is not waging war on Islam, but on terrorism, Romney goes even further to undermine our diplomacy in the middle east, asserting that Obama is no friend of Israel. He even lied that Obama refused to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In fact, the two spoke on the phone since they will be addressing the U.N. on different dates: Netanyahu is scheduled to be in NY on the 27th,Obama on the 25th.There are disagreements between them as to strategy; but, not as to the goal of Israel’s security. Netanyahu and Romney  are double-teaming our president and his foreign policy. This is no time to play such political games. There is room for disagreement . Within Israel there is disagreement. A Netanyahu deputy disagrees on setting Iran “red line”, much as Clinton and Obama have.

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister for intelligence and atomic affairs Dan Meridor, and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, agree with President Obama’s approach. When Mr. Romney is president he can set America’s foreign policy, but not before that event occurs. Since when does a private citizen,even one running for president, join with the leader of another nation to undermine American foreign policy?  Definitely not in the midst of rising unrest near our embassies. President Karzai canceled a trip abroad today fearing the unrest will spread within Afghanistan and against our troops. Should not Romney,Ryan,and Priebus be equally concerned about our troops?

Fact-checkers were busy today assessing Libya/Obama statements of Romney/Ryan/Priebus as untrue. Meanwhile the Neo-cons advising Romney seem eager to push them to continue to lie and create such unrest abroad it could justify their desire to increase military defense spending. Ryan and Romney insist military spending must be increased 20% to keep America safe. They are talking about increasing contracts to corporate arms producers and defense contractors with financial interest in companies such as Mr. Cheney’s Halliburton Corp. They are not talking about veteran’s benefits, which the Ryan/Romney budget cuts. They are not talking about the safety of our troops.

The sad truth is that free speech allows liars to tell untruths about political figures and celebrities because of an exception to defamation charges for public figures. One cannot sue a congressperson by a defamation claim for comments made on the floor of the House or Senate, either. Public and political figures have to defend themselves against lies all the time. We have a notion that “the truth will out”. This might have been true when newspapers,television stations and radio openly and transparently competed with one another;now, one person (or his corporation,think Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes) can own multiple media outlets, even all,within any geographical area. CITIZENS UNITED did away with any transparency requirements which would at least alert us to the names of purveyors of lies. Truth will out is a fantasy. Our town is now the entire world. And media moguls with financial,nee political,agendas rule the town.

Those who have no sacred history of free speech wonder why the U.S. does not simply arrest those hate-mongers and liars who keep throwing fuel on the fires of fanatics. They expect and ask us to arrest, and punish, such persons. While I would love to see them punished, it is not easily done when they can defend their speech as free speech. But, they must face consequences.They must be held accountable…and they will be…if we can discover who they are. Any company supporting such messages of hate, bigotry, and deception should be boycotted, its employees unionized, and its directors removed by shareholder actions. Politicians who join in the game must be denied out votes. We can use speech, our free speech, to see justice done and consequences suffered. We cannot give up our sacred freedoms but we can use them, teach them and spread them throughout this country and the world community.

Words have power, and we must use them wisely, compassionately and forcefully as have our President and Secretary of State. Thank you Mr. President and Secretary Clinton. Thank you citizens of the world, who seek freedom, including free speech for your people. As you build your new democracies,guard it well.


Attack on Libyan embassy was not a protest but organized attack.4 cars pulled up flying black flags,witnesses say it was response to killing of Libyan AlQuaeda leader by drone attack. As we learn mire we will understand more, and perhaps strengthen our ties with a free Libya and its people.,many of whom were also injured in this attack. It is still imperative that we allow our president and secretary of state to address foreign policy and security issues abroad,and strengthen our ties to emerging democracies and persons of good will. We must hold accountable all those who would weaken and undermine our efforts to seek peace with the nations of the world,despite the difficulties we face.



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