First Lady Michelle Obama addressed students and faculty at Peking University in Bejing, China on Saturday and addressing free speech issues. The First Lady told the audience:
That’s why it’s so important for information and ideas to flow freely over the internet and through the media, because that’s how we discover the truth. That’s how we learn what’s really happening in our communities in our country and our world. And that’s how we decide which values and ideas we think are best–by questioning and debating them vigorously–by listening to all sides of an argument and by judging for ourselves. My husband and I are on the receiving end of plenty of questioning and criticism from our media and our fellow citizens and its not always easy, but we wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world, because time and again we have seen that countries are stronger and more prosperous when voices and opinions of all their citizens can be heard. And as my husband has said, ‘We respect the uniqueness of other cultures and societies but when it comes to expressing yourself freely and worshipping as you choose and having open access to information. We believe those universal rights–they are universal rights that are the birth right of every person on this planet.’
Mrs. Obama’s remarks come on the heels of the administration’s announcement that it would cede oversight of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) which assigns and manages domain names and Web addresses for the Internet.
In light of the First Lady’s words, some may remember a recent court decision in the 9th circuit ruling that a public school in California did not violate students’ first amendment rights, when the school singled out the school kids for wearing American flag t-shirts. The court opinionated that the school could target these students for inciting disruptions.
In 2010, according to reports, the administration’s Department of Homeland Security shut down 76 web domains without a court order citing copyright infringements. This prompted internet freedom activists, Raw Story reported at the time, to cry foul over possible censorship issues.
Additionally, it should be noted that former Obama Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave her own thoughts about “offensive” and “discriminatory” expression towards religion at the high-level meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in July of 2011. Clinton said:
“Together we have begun to overcome the false divide that pits religious sensitivities against freedom of expression, and we are pursuing a new approach based on concrete steps to fight intolerance wherever it occurs,” Clinton said.
The secretary said no country, including the United States, “has a monopoly on truth or a secret formula for ethnic and religious harmony.” There are still Americans who “feel vulnerable or marginalized as a result of their religious beliefs,” and “wide ripples of intolerance” can spread from the actions of only a few incendiary people, Clinton said.
In response, “we are focused on promoting interfaith education and collaboration, enforcing anti-discrimination laws, protecting the rights of all people to worship as they choose and to use some old-fashioned techniques of peer pressure and shaming, so that people don’t feel that they have the support to do what we abhor,” she said.
In addition, Clinton announced that the Obama administration plans to invite relevant world experts later in 2011 for “a series of meetings to discuss best practices, exchange ideas and keep us moving forward” on implementing the resolution.
Clinton said the need for religious tolerance around the world is as important as ever in 2011. The transitions to democracy in the Middle East and North Africa “have also exposed ethnic and religious minorities to new dangers,” she said, and established democracies still need to work to fully protect their religious diversity, prevent discrimination and protect freedom of expression.