Commentary: U.N. needs lesson on free speech and religious tolerance

One can only imagine the reaction in some societies to one of this country's landmark free speech cases — the one that upheld porn pusher Larry Flynt's constitutional right to publish a satirical cartoon suggesting that religious leader Jerry Falwell had sex with his mother.

Many if not most Americans — excluding, perhaps, Flynt's paying customers — no doubt found the very idea of that cartoon repulsive and offensive. Yet millions of Americans who wouldn't give Flynt or his sleazy mag a second glance could articulate the principle behind his right to publish it.

Maybe a few of those fellow citizens need to make a First Amendment case to the United Nations, where some Islamic theocracies are pushing for an international ban on supposedly blasphemous treatment of religious beliefs and symbols. It's a movement that grew out of cartoons satirical of the prophet Muhammad, published four years ago in a Danish newspaper. Those cartoons sparked near-riots at Western embassies in some Muslim nations. According to a news story published last week, nations that ratify such a treaty would be expected to curb free expression if it risked offending religious sensibilities.

The Obama administration is having none of it.

"Some claim that the best way to protect the freedom of religion," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in response to the proposal, "is to implement so-called anti-defamation policies that would restrict freedom of expression and the freedom of religion. I strongly disagree."

Sweden's ambassador echoed the sentiment: "Religions as such do not have rights — it's people who have rights."

Yet to hear the arguments from proponents of such an agreement is to get a real sense of how deep is the cultural chasm between democratic and theocratic convictions.

"There has to be a balance," said Pakistani diplomat Marghoob Saleem Butt, "between freedom of expression and respect for others."

That kind of thinking sounds shaky enough as a defense of things like campus "speech codes"; as a principle governing the human race, it's hopeless.

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