Obama Defends Free Speech

President Obama came out swinging against extremism and for free speech in his powerful, profound, stately address to the United Nations today. It was a timely call for tolerance and against hatred – “There is no speech that justifies mindless violence” — a speech even a Tea Partier should love. It was Obama at his best, up there with his great rumination on race in the 2008 campaign.

He opened with a moving portrait of the late Chris Stevens. If I were Stevens’ murderers, or the government of Iran, I would be very scared right now: The President made it clear both are in his sights. But in the end, he offered a deep vision of the common heartbeat of humanity, reminding us that the mobs we see on the news are just a small portion of the world’s population.

I was particularly heartened by his enlightened view toward the perils and possibilities of the new civic ecology (as Henry Jenkins says) enabled by technology:

“In 2012, at a time when anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive videos around the world with a click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete.”

He made it clear that he finds The Innocence of Muslims reprehensible. But he also made it clear that in a democracy, even evil expression is allowed. As I told my students last week, there is no freedom of speech without freedom of extreme speech.

I also suggested to my students that, like Libyans holding up signs of support for the slain Stevens, couldn’t we us social media to say that one obscure film does not represent the view of most Americans? If so, what would we say?

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