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Freedoms of Religion and Speech Are Indivisible, Interdependent
January 13, 2010

Tad Stahnke: "freedom of religion cannot be ensured without the vigorous protection of free speech."
Tad Stahnke: “freedom of religion cannot be ensured without the vigorous protection of free speech.”

By Tad Stahnke, Director of Policy and Programs
Human Rights First

Freedom of religion or belief cannot be ensured without the vigorous protection of free speech. The two freedoms are indivisible and interdependent, and protect core aspects of the identity of both individuals and communities. Their equal protection promotes the debate and dissent that are essential to healthy societies, protects against discrimination, and helps unleash the potential of all individuals to participate in political, social and economic life. Laws that restrict speech in the name of protecting a religion, an ideology or a political system not only inherently impinge upon rights to free expression and chill the exercise of that right, all too often they also restrict the exercise of religious freedom, especially for minority groups.

It is true that offensive and hateful speech targeting members of religious communities (as well as racial, ethnic and sexual minorities) does exist in many countries around the globe, including in democratic ones such as the United States. And where there is a climate of hatred and intolerance, there is all too often discrimination and violence. These problems must be confronted, and there are many effective steps that governments should take — but often don’t. These steps need not and should not involve restrictions on free speech.

All governments can do more to respond to bias-motivated violence, such as working with affected communities to investigate and prosecute those responsible for such violence and ensuring that police and prosecutors have the tools and the training to deal with the problem. Laws and policies to combat discrimination should be adopted and enforced, and adequate support and resources must be given to the necessary judicial and other institutions.

In addition, responses to other acts and expressions of hatred and intolerance — responses that do not involve restrictions on speech — should be identified and promoted. The rich experience of civil society groups in the United States — working together across racial, ethnic and religious lines, as well as with law enforcement and political leaders at all levels of government — provides many examples of best practices. Government officials and political leaders should be pressed to speak out more often and more forcefully to condemn acts and expressions of hatred and intolerance, particularly when committed by other public officials or in state-controlled media.

Indeed, more speech is what is necessary to combat bigotry, intolerance, discrimination and violence. Only with strong protections for free expression can we help create an atmosphere of respect and peace among communities, cultures and religions. International efforts to develop rules to prohibit expression in the name of protecting religion undermine these essential goals.

Tad Stahnke joined Human Rights First in January 2008 as director of the Fighting Discrimination program, and currently serves as director of policy and programs. Prior to joining Human Rights First, Stahnke worked at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, where he served as deputy executive director for policy as well as acting executive director. Stahnke has also served as an expert in international human rights law in training U.S. government officials.

Stahnke has authored and coauthored numerous scholarly publications, including “Religion-State Issues and the Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief: A Comparative Textual Analysis of the Constitutions of Predominantly Muslim States,” “Religious Diversity in the European Union: an International Human Rights Perspective,” “The Right to Engage in Religious Persuasion” and “Religion and Human Rights: Basic Documents.”

Stahnke has worked as a research fellow and lecturer at Columbia Law School and as an associate at Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton in New York. He holds a law degree from Columbia Law School, a master’s in urban planning from New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service, and a bachelor of arts degree in metropolitan studies from NYU. Stahnke was also a law clerk to Judge Wilfred Feinberg of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government.