Christopher Hitchens - Freedom of Expression





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Published on May 26, 2012

full debate: http://vimeo.com/8754563


"Who will you appoint?" Hitchens asked the three speakers opposing the motion. "Who will be the one who says, 'I know exactly where the limits should be, I know how far you can go and I know when you've gone too far, and I'll decide that?' Who do you think, who do you know, who have you heard of, who have you read about in history to whom you'd give that job?" Clearly, he said, not anyone here.

There was a sense among the opponents of the motion that the freedom that underlies the Constitution and American culture is no longer so easy to embrace in a globalized world.

Daisy Khan, the executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, emphasized that nations are so much closer to one another, and information is disseminated so rapidly that "the notion of space, of sharing space with our neighbors, needs to be negotiated and re-examined."

While no one stated it directly, the implication was that the United States, with its open space and political power, can afford a certain kind of freedom that comes less easily to the powerless and marginalized.

"When you publish something that is an immensely popular form of entertainment or when a powerful figure gives a speech, like the pope, you are using discourse to malign the way an already marginalized community is perceived," Khan said.

In these instances, she argued, "free speech" is used to oppress others — something that is un-American and goes against the foundational values of free speech.

The point isn't whether such things can or cannot be published, she said. The real issue is, "does it elevate the public discourse? Or is it simply racist, xenophobic drivel that isn't half as clever as it purports to be?"

The audience clearly was in the camp of the proponents of the motion, and most agreed with Gourevitch when he said it was presumptuous to think that anyone could regulate speech. "I think that we are at less risk taking the great risk of freedom," he said.

The audience at the debate voted once before the debate started and once during closing statements. At the beginning, a large majority favored the motion, "Freedom of expression must include the license to offend": 177 favored the motion, 25 opposed it and 24 were unsure. At the end of the debate, support of the motion increased to 201; only 39 opposed.


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