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Letter to the editor of the Turkish Daily News

To the Editor:

Thank you for your insightful and telling columns. I have been particularly interested in the discussions of Article 301 and free speech. I thought you all should be aware that it is not only in Turkey that the debate over just how free free speech should be has raged over the years. The United States is a case in point.

The purpose of the First Amendment of the American Constitution which guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press was not to adhere to a principle, but to keep governmental power in check. It was believed by the framers of the Constitution that a free press and a vocal, informed public are essential to making government accountable for its actions. Since then, there have been numerous attempts by US presidents to hamper free speech out of fear. American counterparts to Turkey’s Article 301 included banning “malicious writing” against the US Government (1798), speaking out against the military draft or the government, (world war I) and curbing speech that posed a “clear and present danger” of bringing about “substantive evils” (McCarthyism).

So Turkey’s government is not alone in regulating speech in response to a perceived threat. In the context of civil society rather than that of government, free speech isn’t simply a right or an expression of some lofty ideal, but a tool for making citizens accountable for contributing to constructive rather than destructive discourse. More than one of your writers has used the free speech scenario of a student wearing a tee shirt with a hateful slogan on it at the university. Imagine, if you will, that instead of the student being punished or banned, a fellow student comes up to the offending student and says:  “While I respect your right to express your opinion, let me point out that it is offensive to some people. If you hope to convince others of the cogency of your argument, don’t you think using less provoking language would be more effective?”  And what if in a little while another student comes along and says: “You know, I belong to the group you are disparaging. You have a right to your opinion, but since we live and work together, how about showing me a little respect, just as I’m speaking to you respectfully now?” After that, perhaps a teacher or another student expresses their own opinions in a courteous, reasoned way. Surely leading by example will be more efficacious than applying censure. Punishing or banning speech is not a respectful, reasonable or particularly skillful tool to encourage free and civil discourse.

 We in the US find we have to re-learn that lesson repeatedly – at least once per generation. That is to be expected, for it’s a difficult lesson. What I find curious, however, is that the voices calling the loudest for regulations like Article 301 to be enforced are the same ones calling for de-regulating the markets. They trust in the ”invisible hand”  of Keynesian economics to distribute wealth equitably, but not in the invisible hand of education and civility to regulate speech.  Truly, the crux of the matter lies not in the right to free speech, but in the responsibility which accompanies it.

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