Freedom of expression: where can we draw the line?

Published: September 20, 2012
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The writer is a graduate of Columbia Law School and a member of the New York Bar, is a partner at the Lahore-based law firm of Rana Ijaz & Partners

The writer is a graduate of Columbia Law School and a member of the New York Bar, is a partner at the Lahore-based law firm of Rana Ijaz & Partners

The blasphemous video, “Innocence of Muslims” has riled Muslims around the world and has, once again, sparked the debate over the issue of whether or not a person should have the right to express him or herself in a way and to an extent that he/she likes.

Cyberspace has added another dimension to this debate with social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter enabling people to have their expression, whether it is via a message or a photo or video, to be seen and heard a lot faster and by a lot more people, making its impact quicker, broader and stronger. Hence, the issue of freedom of expression has acquired even more significance.

The ‘freedom of expression’ absolutists advocate complete freedom of expression without any restrictions whatsoever. Then there are those who advocate imposition of reasonable restrictions on this freedom, especially when the unbridled freedom is likely to be offensive to a certain religion, race or ethnicity.

The US Government’s position on this video has essentially indicated that while the act is condemnable, no legal action can be taken against the producer as this act falls within his constitutionally protected right to express his opinion. This may be hard to swallow since it means that he can virtually get away with offending a large part of the Muslim community.

So, is there anything that can and should be done to prevent such ‘expressions’? One option is taking on the entity that is giving this producer the platform to broadcast his views. For instance, shouldn’t all the angry Muslims go after YouTube (owned by Google) and other business entities that let such a video go viral in the first place? Do these companies’ rules allow posting of such a video and if they do, shouldn’t these rules be revisited? Surprisingly, YouTube/Google’s rules do not prohibit posting of such a video because it does not promote hatred or incite violence. Essentially, Google’s defence is that the movie itself is not inciting violence in the form of declaration of a war or a call for violence against a certain group — Muslims in this case. The violent reaction of the Muslims is not something the producer was inciting. Had the movie promoted hatred and incited violence among non-Muslims against Muslims, it would have been a slam dunk case of inciting violence. If not counterintuitive, Google’s defence is rather naïve and simplistic. The question is: Did the producer not expect Muslims to react in this manner? If he did, does it not constitute inciting violence?

Instead of getting into nuances and semantic differences regarding what constitutes inciting violence, how about simply having a sweeping rule prohibiting the posting of anything (message, photo, or video) that is clearly aimed at mocking or offending any religion? Who would disagree with such a rule and why? Why should someone be conferred the right to express opinions on another religion in such a patently offensive manner anyway?

Another option is compelling entities like YouTube/Google to comply with relevant local laws, if any, of the countries where they are doing business. In addition to preventing violent reactions in that particular country, this would also avert the possibility of shutting down of its website. The ban of YouTube in Pakistan is a case in point. This rather symbolic move may not be the most effective way of dealing with this issue but it certainly would hurt YouTube/Google financially.

Therefore, while upholding an individual’s freedom of expression, YouTube/Google has refused to prohibit posting of such a contemptible video in complete disregard for some of its users’ religious and cultural sensibilities. However, in view of the financial losses, it would at least make business sense for YouTube/Google to revise its rules to ensure that it does not lose more money while trying to champion the cause of freedom of expression of a few misguided and despicable individuals.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 21st, 2012.

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Reader Comments (52)

  • IceSoul
    Sep 21, 2012 - 12:27AM

    You sir, can not draw the line for the Americans (or for anyone else). They have already decided for themselves and your opinion does not matter at all. America will never bend to the demands of a frenzied mob. That is the truth and it is staring everybody in the face.Recommend

  • IceSoul
    Sep 21, 2012 - 12:31AM

    Also, you do not understand google’s statement at all. Did the producer kill someone? Did he riot? Did he damage any property? Did his supporters do any of these things? Get off your high horse; the Americans don’t give a damn about some people on the other side of the world getting worked up about a stupid video. If its offensive to you; don’t watch it (just like I didn’t). Its THAT simple.

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  • MOK
    Sep 21, 2012 - 12:46AM

    I was wondering when the writer would come out and say that taking a moral high ground and merely ignoring this video altogether is also an option. I’m sad that this not the case, but then I guess there are worst things to be sad about; poverty and hunger, as opposed to angst caused by rolling pictures.

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  • John B
    Sep 21, 2012 - 1:02AM

    “Why should someone be conferred the right to express opinions on another religion in such a patently offensive manner anyway?”

    It is the same question others are also asking about the Muslim tenants. Perhaps it would be beneficial for others if the author points out why others have to accept what Muslims say without questioning.

    In olden days they burnt the books and press. Today the author advocates the same.

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  • Umair
    Sep 21, 2012 - 1:25AM

    Now that’s what we call a decent solution for such issues (just to initiate)
    However, this wont stop them insulting our Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.), neither these protest, arson, strikes, and etc..
    if adequate measures are not taken; things would go worse, and the infidels would switch to some other medium to humiliate Islam and Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.)

    our Religious Scholars n leaders of all Muslim countries should brief the Head of Non-Muslim Countries about the gravity of the consequences that they might suffer, either physically and/or economically (brief, not threaten). and convince them to refrain and impose ban from such activities in future.

    Violence does not yield’s everything, we have to be sane and calm while tackling issues like these. Otherwise none gives a damn ruining your own country’s property.

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  • a_writer
    Sep 21, 2012 - 2:37AM

    ” how about simply having a sweeping rule prohibiting the posting of anything (message, photo, or video) that is clearly aimed at mocking or offending any religion? ” – I am surprised the author of this article is a Law degree from Columbia University, one of the Ivy League and top rated university in the US. How would you come up with a universal definition for ‘mocking and offending’ a religion?

    There is something fundamentally wrong with the mindset of some people that they feel the need to constantly and violently react to any provocation in the name of ‘protecting’ their faith – a faith that has withstood the test of time and flourished over so many centuries.

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  • Ivan
    Sep 21, 2012 - 2:42AM

    If you shut down youtube:

    Google will lose some money
    Taliban will be unhappy as their jehadi videos won’t be seen by Pakistani public

    AND Pakistani students and professionals will not have access to vast trove of useful information.

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  • Sep 21, 2012 - 3:11AM

    Protest and violence, can we draw a line?

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  • Liberal
    Sep 21, 2012 - 3:12AM

    I’m sorry to disappoint you, but there’s a difference between freedom of speech and hate speech. In the context of your article, freedom of speech is the right any non-muslim has to mock any belief, even though it won’t be considered moral. Hate speech is a crime and no one has the right to mock a race/individual/group or preach intolerant/hateful speech against them, as they citizens and have rights. “Blasphemy” is not a crime in the West. No one would be hurting the sentiments of Muslims, if Muslims weren’t so sensitive about their own beliefs. It’s time to stop being so emotional and hypocrite – I have lose count of many time I see Muslims laughing at Hindus/Christians beliefs.

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  • Arijit Sharma
    Sep 21, 2012 - 4:44AM

    Why should someone be conferred the right to express opinions on another religion in such a patently offensive manner anyway?

    That is tantamount to the Muslim world demanding censorship. No can do. Everybody should have the rights to offend and be offended. If this is unacceptable, the entire Muslim world should create a USSR of sorts, retreat/migrate into that entity and then stop interacting with the rest of the world. Recommend

  • Cautious
    Sep 21, 2012 - 4:47AM

    Rubbish. I read things on the newspaper daily that are highly offensive – that doesn’t give me a right to be violent & your religious beliefs don’t give you a right to be violent. If you don’t like Utube then don’t use it — if you don’t like a book or cartoon then don’t read it – no one if forcing you to do anything and you have no right to tell others what they can or cannot read/write or watch.

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  • Cautious
    Sep 21, 2012 - 5:16AM

    @Liberal

    Hate speech is a crime and no one has
    the right to mock a
    race/individual/group or preach
    intolerant/hateful speech against
    them, as they citizens and have
    rights.

    You might have read that on an ET editorial but the Editor was dead wrong and so are you. There is no law against hate speech – and if someone gets in your face and calls you something hateful and you punch him in the nose it’s you that will end up in jail not the person offending you.

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  • Kailash sethy
    Sep 21, 2012 - 5:53AM

    Really? Does this guy has any idea about financial knowledge about google. Had he spent a second googling last qtr financial of google, he wouldn’t have come with this headline. And he is in such a high position in Pakistan, not sure about positions in USA.

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  • Umer
    Sep 21, 2012 - 6:44AM

    The question is: Did the producer not expect Muslims to react in this manner? If he did, does it not constitute inciting violence?

    No it doesn’t, and accepting that would just mean playing in the hands of extremists who would then be able to dictate any agenda by threat of violence. The question is why don’t other communities act in such manner when they are offended? Here lies the answer.

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  • Umer
    Sep 21, 2012 - 6:46AM

    Instead of getting into nuances and semantic differences regarding what constitutes inciting violence, how about simply having a sweeping rule prohibiting the posting of anything (message, photo, or video) that is clearly aimed at mocking or offending any religion? Who would disagree with such a rule and why?

    I think most maulanas would disagree to that who do it all the time. They offend Shias, Brelvis, Ahmadis, Christians, Jews, Hindus and what not…all the time.

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  • Umer
    Sep 21, 2012 - 6:51AM

    Why should someone be conferred the right to express opinions on another religion in such a patently offensive manner anyway?

    Part of the reason is that one man’s blasphemy is other man’s belief. Are you really that naïve to not know that? For instance some Christians would be offended when Muslims declare Jesus as just a man and not son of God, to cite just one example. Although, most Christians are peaceful and would not go on a rampage on such issues unlike their Muslim counterparts.

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  • F
    Sep 21, 2012 - 7:36AM

    charity begins at home:
    can any Muslim country start by ENFORCING laws that discriminate against people of other faiths? Can any Muslim leader decry the venom and violence heaped on non Muslims everyday by their own rank and file? Can “moderate” Muslims come out on the streets in favor of equality for all?

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  • numbersnumbers
    Sep 21, 2012 - 7:46AM

    I would wonder if the author is also going to support 1) arresting various mullahs who incite mobs against Muslim and non-Muslim religious minorities INSIDE PAKISTAN! 2) arresting various TV personalities who regularly engage in hate speech against religious minorities and non-Muslim religions across the globe! 3) arresting various fringe party leaders who glorify killing non-Muslims across the world! PROBABLY NOT!!!!! Pakistan’s complaints about religious intolerance from the West probably remind the world leaders of the old tale of the POT CALLING THE KETTLE BLACK!

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  • SM
    Sep 21, 2012 - 8:05AM

    The problem is not the film as much as the fact that there is a double standard of things sensitive to Muslims – if there is something that hurts the feelings of Jews, why does freedom of expression never apply there. Freedom of expression only applies to disrespecting Muslim faith and beliefs.

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  • Kamran shigri
    Sep 21, 2012 - 8:06AM

    If youtube or google inc. Or any other entity thinks the video does not incite hatred or promote violance, they are the most stupid creatures on eart… Targetting someone’s belief and mocking the the bloved prophet (saw) is something most likely to promote violance… Infact whatever they are doing is deliberate and with a pre-arranged plan… Where do their policies go when content about holocaust are removed overnight????? Its just stupidity

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  • gp65
    Sep 21, 2012 - 8:24AM

    @SM: “The problem is not the film as much as the fact that there is a double standard of things sensitive to Muslims – if there is something that hurts the feelings of Jews, why does freedom of expression never apply there”

    Imran Khan was wrong and so are you. USA does not have holocaust denial laws. There are no double standards in US

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  • John B
    Sep 21, 2012 - 8:49AM

    For those who advocate that the line should be drawn:

    Here is a lesson on First amendment to The US constitution -freedom of speech and expression.

    Johnson was charged in 1984 when he set the US flag on fire in protest. The ruling was in Johnson’s favor. The US SC opinion states:

    “if there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea offensive or disagreeable.”- Texas Vs Johnson:

    Again,

    “First Amendment freedoms are most in danger when the government seeks to control thought or to justify its laws for that impermissible end. The right to think is the beginning of freedom, and speech must be protected from the government because speech is the beginning of thought.”- Ashcroft Vs  Free speech coalition.

    if the US flag has no special privilege in the US, then nothing has any privilege.

    The first amendment is the inalienable rights of this land. Any school child in the US will tell and articulate it.

    the first amendment begins by saying “congress ( people) shall make no law…

    End of story.

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  • wonderer
    Sep 21, 2012 - 8:51AM

    @Arijit Sharma:

    “……the entire Muslim world should create a USSR of sorts, retreat/migrate into that entity and then stop interacting with the rest of the world.”

    The only problem with this suggestion is that the Muslims will reject it unanimously. Seeing what is going on in Pakistan they will be certain that is the way to extinction.

    One can understand the hurt and outrage the Muslims feel. Should they not try to understand the hurt and outrage they themselves cause?

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  • Toba Alu
    Sep 21, 2012 - 8:59AM

    As an atheist I could feel offended everyday by the acts of about 98% of the world population as superstition is still the order of the day and publicized all over in some form or shape. But their ignorance does not give me the right to become violent or shut them up by blocking all their superstitious websites, movies or whatever. Just grow up, get real and become peaceful.

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  • Sep 21, 2012 - 11:39AM

    What rubbish!

    You can’t randomly grant anyone the right to get offended!

    1) What about Ahmadis, when the Govt of Pakistan declares them non-Muslims because Muslims get offended, what about the offense they feel when every time someone calls them non-Muslim?

    2) What about when you call Jesus a Prophet, when Christians believe he is divine?

    If you keep debating and encouraging and justifying violence there is no end.

    Words do not kill.

    Hate speech is toxic and should be banned. But, this doesn’t qualify hate speech. This guy is attacking an ideology- a Religion. Not a person or a people.

    Just because group A takes offense, you cannot ban it. If that were the case this newspaper cannot call Ahmadis non-Muslims because they are offended.

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  • Somene Anonymous
    Sep 21, 2012 - 1:40PM

    Very naive and rudimentary op-ed by a supposedly well educated lawyer. My view is that the issue is not “whether or not a person should have the right to express herself in way or to an extent she pleases” as set forth by the writer. I think there are two issues from legal point of view i) whether this video constitutes an attempt to ‘incite violence’ (which is not covered under the 1st Amendment free speech rigths in the US) and ii) to what extent, if any, Youtube and other global internet and social media companies are subject to (or should be subject to) local laws of countries in which they operate. It is, in my view, high time that global internet and social media companies come out of the shell of US laws protection and start complying with local laws in the global communities as well.

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  • TheChimera
    Sep 21, 2012 - 2:31PM

    Our right to freedom of speech is inviolable and cannot be diluted; the same as your love for the founder of your faith. Get used to it

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  • John B
    Sep 21, 2012 - 3:00PM

    @Somene Anonymous:
    The first point you are raising is truly valid.

    “whether this video constitutes an attempt to ‘incite violence” – no where in that video it was advocated that Muslims should resort to violence.

    If any, the video may be considered as a propaganda to incite non Muslims to riot against Muslims.

    Since the intension of the author cannot be expressly proven or agreed upon between two parties with opposing views, it becomes a circular argument.

    On the second issue, the companies operate under local laws. If the people don’t like it, they don’t have to use it.

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  • tj
    Sep 21, 2012 - 3:08PM

    if you think blocking youtube/google in Pakistan would hurt it financially , you live in a fools paradise ! i cant understand how masses in Pakistan start believing anything which is being quoted on the internet without any reference and spread it like wild fire with all we are so right attitude, please get a life and use google to get some facts rather than being led like sheep!

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  • SM
    Sep 21, 2012 - 3:20PM

    @John B:
    So John B, may I talk freely about the Holocaust and will you defend my right to say what I feel like, come what may? Not my experience of living in the US for close to two decades

    My experience suggests that I can curse someone’s parents and they may not react but god forbid I say something about the Jews or the Holocaust.

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  • G. Din
    Sep 21, 2012 - 4:10PM

    @SM:
    “Freedom of expression only applies to disrespecting Muslim faith and beliefs.”
    One rails against someone who has annoyed you. Muslims must introspect why people all over the world use Freedom of Expression to disrespect only Islam. Could it be that Muslims are the most pugnacious and prickly neighours the world over? Don’t blame Freedom of Expression! Look instead into the mirror and experience the feeling of revulsion gradually taking you over!

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  • SM
    Sep 21, 2012 - 4:39PM

    @G. Din:
    That is sidestepping the point – actions of Muslims do not and should not translate into the world being allowed to disrespect the Muslim faith. After all when Christians prosecuted Jews for close to 2000 years, does that translate into the religion of Christianity being evil? Just because Hitler victimized Jews does not translate into a permission to rally against Christian beliefs.

    You let your biases and prejudices get the better of you.

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  • arcane
    Sep 21, 2012 - 5:12PM

    “Censorship, like charity, should begin at home: but unlike charity, it should end there.” – Claire Booth Luce

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  • Wipe Out
    Sep 21, 2012 - 5:34PM

    “The question is: Did the producer not expect Muslims to react in this manner? If he did, does it not constitute inciting violence?”

    Perhaps. But you being a lawyer should surely understand that if a court is given discretion or the law changed somehow to make this sort of distinction a lot of “legitimate” criticism/speech would be restricted too and the courts would have far too much power. Freedom of Speech would be gone.

    Also, this reasoning reminded me of how people blame women when a rape happens. They say surely the woman knew she was inviting the wrong type of attention; she should have behaved differently. Do you agree with those who think this way?

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  • Imran Con
    Sep 21, 2012 - 6:09PM

    I get offended when people stick their nose in my business and try to tell me what I can or can’t say as it implies you think you’re superior and I require your guidance. Now what should we do with you?Recommend

  • Imran Con
    Sep 21, 2012 - 6:19PM

    @SM:
    I live in the US and couldn’t care less if you did or not. People make fun of Jewish stereotypes on television all the time as well. I can think of two just last night. The stereotype of them and money plus a play on words that referenced the holocaust for comedic purposes. If it’s not your experience for the last two decades, then you are only listening when it’s convenient. I’ve lived here or nearly 3 decades. Sounds like you’re just a character in the same old story of Muslims closing themselves off from the rest of society.Recommend

  • gp65
    Sep 21, 2012 - 6:23PM

    @SM: “So John B, may I talk freely about the Holocaust and will you defend my right to say what I feel like, come what may?”

    Not John B but responding any way. You DO have a right in US to speak freely abou the holocaust. When anyone does things which are socially unacceptable they have to be willing to pay a socioeconomic price. If I offend my friend, he may cease to be my friend. If I offend a customer, he may cease to be my customer. If I am an anchor of a TV chain and offend millions of viewers, the commercial TV organization may fire me to protect its customers. All these are examples of socioeconomic price that you must pay if you say something that annoys the majority. It however is not illegal to talk aout holocaust and you will not get any prison sentence by doing so let alone death as blasphemy if proved does result in Pakistan.

    But let me ask you one thing. are you willing to review your textboks because they hurt the feelings of the Hindus, are you willing to review your anti Ahmadi laws – if you think they are a separate religion, are you not mocking that religion’s founder when everyone needing a passport must decry Mirza Ghulam Mohammed as a fraudster?

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  • Cautious
    Sep 21, 2012 - 6:47PM

    @SM

    So John B, may I talk freely about the
    Holocaust and will you defend my right
    to say what I feel like, come what
    may? Not my experience of living in
    the US for close to two decades

    You can stand on any public street corner and denounce the holocaust and call Jews any name you want — even if that public street corner is directly across from a Synague. You may get harsh looks but if anyone harms you it’s those people that will end up in jail not you. Attempts to censor aren’t anything new in the USA and there are plenty of examples of people/communities trying to censor people and they have always been overturned by the court. With that said – you don’t have a right to be published by any newspaper (printed or electronic) and your contract with Utube or whomever is between you and that organization – it has nothing to do with the US govt.

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  • john
    Sep 21, 2012 - 8:20PM

    The question is: Did the producer not expect Muslims to react in this manner? If he did, does it not constitute inciting violence?

    Isnt that an incredibly racist comment against Muslims? this is like a racism of lower expectations. lol.

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  • Muhammed Usama Aziz
    Sep 21, 2012 - 8:21PM

    If I upload a video on Youtube and some people report it as offensive or vulgar even though there is no such content in it it gets removed but millions of people have reported the trailor of the movie “Innocence of Muslims” which is hurting the Muslims all around the world but Youtube doesn’t remove it, why these double standards Youtube?

    @all those supporting google for not removing video, please answer this double standards!!

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  • SM
    Sep 21, 2012 - 8:43PM

    @Cautious:
    Do not tell me that since I live in the US and know exactly how it works here. No one dares question the Holocaust in the US and expect to get away with it. And in Europe you get jail time.

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  • gp65
    Sep 21, 2012 - 9:01PM

    @Muhammed Usama Aziz: “If I upload a video on Youtube and some people report it as offensive or vulgar even though there is no such content in it it gets removed”

    No. Youtube videos are never removed for being offensive or vulgar. They are removed for copyright infringement.

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  • Tony Singh
    Sep 21, 2012 - 9:03PM

    @a_writer:
    That shows that even Ivy league Univs can err.

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  • Cautious
    Sep 21, 2012 - 9:07PM

    @Muhammed Usama Aziz.

    If I upload a video on Youtube and
    some people report it as offensive or
    vulgar even though there is no such
    content in it it gets removed

    Utube, Facebook etc are not arms of the USA govt. and when you use their services your bound by an agreement written by them. If you don’t like the terms of their agreement your free to post your offensive/vulgar content using another internet forum or start up your own alternative to Utube or Facebook. In short – in the USA you have freedom of speech but nowhere in the Constitution does it require anyone to publish your speech. If you want to vent – then stand on a public street corner and rant to your hearts content.

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  • Athar
    Sep 21, 2012 - 9:11PM

    @Kamran shigri: “Where do their policies go when content about holocaust are removed overnight????? “

    Rubbish. Just now I typed HOAX OF HOLOCAUST in google search and got “About 3,720,000 results (0.37 seconds)”

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  • Menon
    Sep 21, 2012 - 9:37PM

    Very simple. Everyone’s ignore button should be larger than their insult button. If you are easily insulted into behaving irrationally more insults are coming your way.

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  • Cautious
    Sep 21, 2012 - 9:55PM

    @SM

    @Cautious: Do not tell me that since I
    live in the US and know exactly how it
    works here. No one dares question the
    Holocaust in the US and expect to get
    away with it

    I’ll remind you that Columbia University invited Ahmadinejad to make a presentation where he had made a speech trying to justify his position that the Holocaust didn’t happen. It’s called “freedom of speech” something encouraged by American’s – the more someone expresses their bigotry the better others have to understand he’s a blockhead. As I have previously stated – you have the right to stand on a corner and preach anti Jewish, anti Christian or anti Muslim comments all day long – won’t make you many friends but it’s your right.Recommend

  • DontEatIntoMyRights
    Sep 21, 2012 - 10:26PM

    I need my freedom of speech just as you and your ancestors have had freedom in the past and present to criticize other religions, cultures. Islam needs to reform and humanize. Right now it is encroaching on everybody’s liberty and sense of freedom. You expect too much from others without giving an inch.

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  • Muhammed Usama Aziz
    Sep 21, 2012 - 11:14PM

    Ever heard of Holocaust denial? If there is freedom of speech, then why holocaust denial is crime?

    @Cautious
    I am just highlighting their double standards. If they remove a video which is reported as abuse by a large number of people, why are they not removing this video?

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  • John B
    Sep 21, 2012 - 11:35PM

    @gp65: @cautious: Thanks for saving me from insanity.

    If someone wants to live as a slave of their own making we cannot free them.

    What worries me is that people like @SM are well groomed in thoughts by powerful cult leaders and their innate inquisitiveness of mind and reasoning are dead.

    You can see their thought process in their standard comments on holocaust, circular arguments, answering a question with question, “you are no better than me” type answer, insisting on lies that were not true, quoting Suras for their circular arguments as evidence, “you did it, why shouldn’t I do it” argument, “if only you were .. I would not have …..” and similar others.

    And they are now pervasive in PAK institutions and that is a disaster waiting to happen.

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  • Pir Bulle Shah
    Sep 22, 2012 - 7:38PM

    For whatever reasons Americans change their policies, we just want them to change it. No more insult to Islam or to the Prophet. We will not tolerate it.

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  • Sep 23, 2012 - 8:54AM

    “If not counterintuitive, Google’s defence is rather naïve and simplistic. The question is: Did the producer not expect Muslims to react in this manner? If he did, does it not constitute inciting violence?”

    Amazing that a graduate of Columbia and a member of the N.Y. bar would express such an opinion and ask such a question.

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