Friday, March 2, 2007

Free speech lesson

Americans who are complacent about their heritage of freedoms need a jolt now and then to remind them of what happens when an oppressive government steals civil liberties.

As good a lesson as any comes out of Egypt, nominally a U.S. ally in the tense Middle East. A Cairo court has convicted 22-year-old former student Abdel Kareem Nabil of insulting Islam and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak—and sent him to prison for four years.

Nabil, a Muslim, used his Internet blog to scathingly denounce conservative Muslims and President Mubarak, the equivalent of American bloggers using the Internet to harshly condemn conservative Christian evangelicals and President Bush.

Americans, however, happily, enjoy the 45-words of the First Amendment to protect their speech, their religious beliefs, their right to assemble and protest, and the right to demand remedies from their government. U.S. bloggers have no reason to fear government reprisals for their unrestrained and sizzling rhetoric.

However, it would be foolhardy for Americans to take these rights for granted.

Since 9/11, the federal government has ignored the Constitution and statutory law in the name of fighting terrorism to spy on telephone calls and e-mail, open postal mail, seize and imprison terrorism "suspects" without charges and pry into bank accounts and credit card records—all without court permission as required and with scant objection from a compliant and obeisant U.S. Congress.

Furthermore, opponents of President Bush's war policies have been publicly ridiculed and intimidated by presidential aides who condemn their criticism as unpatriotic and aiding terrorists, a heavy-handed tactic of demagogues to squelch free speech.

The U.S. Constitution will protect Americans from travesties like the one facing the Egyptian blogger, but only if we protect the Constitution.

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