KARAMAH maintains an extensive track record advocating for civil rights, freedom of speech and religious freedom issues as guaranteed in the U.S Constitution. The Qura’nic verse “there shall be no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an 2:256), and principles of justice and humanity provide the foundation for KARAMAH’s position. But the debate continues as to the effectiveness of the current U.S. freedom of speech model specifically. In 2011, a Florida pastor made international news when he publicly burned a copy of the Qur’an, followed by scattered protests resulting in the deaths of at least 12 individuals in Afghanistan. This and other events have sparked a debate about the rights and responsibilities of free speech. At what point does freedom of speech infringe upon the rights of individuals’ and communities’ rights to dignity and safety? To investigate this subject, KARAMAH hosted “The Limits of Free Speech in a Global Era: Does America’s Free Speech Model Endanger Muslim Americans?” at Howard University School of Law.
KARAMAH invited Qasim Rashid, Esq., an award winning member of the Muslim Writers Guild of America and emerging legal scholar, to present his paper titled “In Harm’s Way: The Desperate Need to Update America’s Current Free Speech Model.” Rashid began his presentation by clearly explaining that his proposed model of free speech reform has no similitude to anti-blasphemy legislation—he specifically condemned such legislation. Instead, his argument focused on two vital criteria used historically in American jurisprudence when determining what is protected as free speech and what is not: Proximity and degree.
The Qur’an burning case illustrates that physical proximity is an inadequate method for determining the potential “harm” of a given act of speech. Current free speech laws protect the aforementioned Florida pastor, even though American soldiers and civilians were killed and/or harmed in Afghanistan as a direct consequence of his actions. Contrarily, Rashid argued, a Ku Klux Klan member is not protected under current free speech laws if he burns a cross in another person’s yard—even if no harm or deaths occur—because of his close proximity. The current model, therefore, leaves a gap because it does not account for non-physically proximate harm.
Internet age tools, such as Youtube and Facebook, have presented new and pressing considerations for America’s current free speech model. Accordingly, Rashid illustrated that already established U.S. legislative precedent paves the way for free speech reform in the Internet age. For example, many states have passed cyber-bullying legislation that removes the problematic proximity issue. Cyber-bullying legislation recognizes that requisite intent and a high degree of harm can be inflicted without physical proximity. Likewise, numerous Federal circuit courts recognize the “true threat” doctrine, holding that a true threat is determined from the reasonable recipients perspective, and not necessarily on the sender’s intentions. Rashid does not advocate for a “blanket” solution to analyze free speech cases. On the contrary, he proposes a “surgical” case-by-case analysis—as already employed in cyber-bullying and true threat cases—to ensure free speech, offensive or otherwise, in fact remains free.
The discussion prompted thoughtful and analytical debate amongst audience members. One attendee asked why a U.S. citizen should be held accountable under a free speech model for inciting violence and causing harm elsewhere in the world. Rashid entertained this question with an appeal to the broader value of human life and the issue of an action’s foreseeable versus unforeseeable consequences. He asserted that in the Quran burning case, foreseeable consequences existed. The Florida pastor was issued warnings about the likely dangerous impact on U.S. soldiers and civilians abroad due to the ongoing war. A multitude of similar and intriguing legal questions were posed regarding Rashid’s model. There was much enthusiasm about continuing the discussion, and KARAMAH looks forward to more opportunities for educating about and discussing important issues such as freedom of speech.