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The UN's View of Freedom and Ours

One of the things that tends to happen at events like the Clinton Global Initiative is a regrettable deference toward the speakers.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon
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United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon

It’s partly a matter of just being polite. When Bill Clinton is moderating a panel at the a conference that bears his name, he cannot exactly grill the global leaders who have agreed to participate. A certain amount of deference is warranted.

But this can become awkward at times. On Sunday, Clinton moderated a panel that included United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The Secretary-General said it was the collective responsibility of global leaders to address “intolerance” and “injustice.”

What went unsaid is that the Secretary General has a very different view of intolerance from the one embodied by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. He accepts the idea of freedom of worship but rejects the extension of freedom of speech to “provoke or humiliate” the values and beliefs of others. (More:Hillary Clinton: Raise Taxes on the Rich Everywhere)

Here’s the official transcript from a recent press conference:

Q: On this issue of violence erupting after the controversial film, can you please speak to the argument of freedom of expression that has been raised, too? There is obviously the agenda issue here at the United Nations of defamation of religion, and there is a lot of dispute over that. Maybe weigh in on this in terms of your perspective on how to move forward in some concrete ways, where you can have a balance of freedom of expression, yet at the same time obviously respect various religions. And also perhaps touch on issues of some member states of this organization that don’t even allow certain religions to even open up houses of worship within their country because the level of intolerance is so extreme. Can you please address that, as well?

Secretary General: All human beings have the inalienable right to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly. These are very fundamental rights. But, at the same time, this freedom of expression should not be abused by individuals. Freedom of expression should be and must be guaranteed and protected, when they are used for common justice, common purpose. When some people use this freedom of expression to provoke or humiliate some others’ values and beliefs, then this cannot be protected in such a way. So, my position is that freedom of expression, while it is a fundamental right and privilege, should not be abused by such people, by such a disgraceful and shameful act.

Note that it is one thing to say that freedom of expression should not be abused. That is almost tautological. Of course, no right should be “abused.” The only real question is what is entitled to legal protection. This is where the rubber hits the road — and it’s where the Secretary-General parts ways with the views of the Supreme Court and most Americans.

“When some people use this freedom of expression to provoke or humiliate some others’ values and beliefs, then this cannot be protected in such a way,” the Secretary-General says.

Note that this is not an assertion that different cultures should be entitled to interpret freedom of expression differently, to allow or prohibit different kinds of expression, to hold some utterances beyond the pale. It’s much more than a call for recognition of cultural particularism or even cultural relativism. (More: A Wal-Mart for Libya)

The Secretary-General is saying that the kind of freedom of expression which our Supreme Court has held — time and time again — to be absolutely protected under the constitution just “cannot be protected” in his view.

In other words, he is saying the way of the United States is wrong. We are attempting to protect what cannot be protected.

President Clinton didn’t raise this trouble, of course. But bringing it to light may have helped open up a deeper discussion about why we’re not all very enthusiastic about helping the Secretary General pursue his ideas about uprooting injustice and intolerance in the world. We’re worried that our freedom might be his injustice.

- by CNBC senior editor John Carney

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