Can you have religious freedom without limiting free speech? 1/15/10 asked five experts including ING president, Maha Elgenaidi: Is it possible to protect religious freedom without limiting free speech?

Here’s what Maha had to say:

Free Speech Must Be Balanced Against the Rights of Others

The First Amendment of the Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech … ,” thereby binding together these two important concepts in the consciousness of its citizens, and in many ways differentiating the United States from other nations. Both freedoms have been challenged in the brief history of the United States, but both concepts have prevailed in the long term, reflecting an underlying assumption that to limit either would be more detrimental than any possible challenges arising from their application.

Yet the question arises: Is there ever a circumstance that would warrant the curtailing of free speech to ensure religious freedom?

One finds that even under the Constitution, there are limits that balance one’s right to free speech against the rights of others, including limits on “the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or ‘fighting’ words — those which by their very utterance inflicted injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” (Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942)) For example, the U.S. Supreme Court has taken the position that states can constitutionally ban acts such as cross burnings, which, it can be argued, are an expression of “free speech.”

One can point to episodes when unfettered free speech allowed the spread of toxic ideas with horrifying results. In perhaps the most notorious example, Nazi Germany made extensive use of hate speech and virulent propaganda. Even in the United States, we witnessed the impact of anti-Japanese vitriol within our borders during World War II. Violations against humanity do not happen in a vacuum, but are often preceded by a slow and insidious program of hatred advanced by the spoken or written word.

Today, in light of recent events in the United States and ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the political climate has put a new group of people at risk — Muslims in the West, who since 9/11 have been a target of increased discrimination, harassment and hate crimes. In the aftermath of the tragic Ft. Hood attacks and the Christmas Day attempted airline bombing, reports of mosque vandalism, hate crimes and other incidents have soared. In this context, the freedom to denigrate another’s religion is no longer a purely legal issue, but takes on other dimensions. It has been noted that an important precursor to genocide is the denigration and dehumanization of the target group, which prepares the public for the suspension of its rights.

As the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) implements actions that are viewed by some as ethnic profiling at airports, it is not a great leap to envision curtailment of civil liberties and an increase in hate crimes and other incidents against Muslims.

The question then arises, are we willing to risk harm to others for an absolute interpretation of an important principle? There is no simple answer, but it is important to note that even under the Constitution, the right to free speech is not absolute, but must be balanced against the rights of others and the welfare of the general public.

In the spirit of positive change, we urge people of all faiths and backgrounds to view this issue, not as a reason to divide us, but as an opportunity for dialogue, understanding and bridge building.