Free speech for Iraqis—and Americans

John M. Poswall is a Sacramento attorney and novelist

On April 11, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher stated our goal in Iraq: “to create a situation where Iraqis can express themselves freely, where all points of view can be expressed freely and without intimidation or violence.”

In the same week, the Baseball Hall of Fame canceled a celebration of the great baseball film Bull Durham because two of its actors, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, had engaged in “public criticism of President Bush.” On the Web and elsewhere, Americans have been urged to boycott actors and others who publicly raise questions about our government’s policies with regard to Iraq.

How have we come to a place where we advocate “freedom of expression” for Iraqis “without fear of intimidation or reprisal” but organize economic reprisals and intimidation against those who criticize government policy here at home? Is it that we fail to understand or to teach the role of dissent in a free society?

Recently in Sacramento, a church brought before its worshippers the atheist who challenged the “under God” phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance—not to burn him but to debate him. The church’s leaders understood that to confront an argument, they had to put forward a better, more convincing argument. To do so, they had to read, think, research, question and then debate. It was the strength of their belief, not its weakness, that allowed them to confront other opinions.

War and peace are critical issues to a free society. Critics, with their constant questioning, force our government to confront and articulate the justifications for its actions. Reaching a consensus in the face of hard questions is likely to make for better policy with greater public understanding and support.

Public criticism of the government in America is not a right; it is a duty. The ultimate check and balance is an informed public questioning its government. That an enemy might misunderstand our freedom to criticize as weakness is no excuse to change what we stand for at home, especially if it is the very freedom we profess to wish for a liberated Iraq.

Perhaps, as we seek to bring “freedom of expression without fear of intimidation” to Iraq, we will learn a lesson about the importance of free speech, without fear of intimidation, here at home.