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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

‘In America, You Have a Right to Be Stupid,’ Kerry Says in Blunt Defense of Free Speech

In a robust defense of free speech during a meeting with young Germans in Berlin on Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry explained just how far the limits of tolerance extend in blunt terms. “In America,” the country’s top diplomat explained, “you have a right to be stupid.”

That remark, at a forum hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, went completely unmentioned in German newspaper and television reports on the event, but it was gleefully seized upon by Mr. Kerry’s critics back home, and bored journalists evrywhere, hungry for a gaffe.

In addition to triggering a blaring siren from the Drudge Report, Mr. Kerry’s remark quickly became fodder for the bloggers at Breitbart News and the conservative provocateur Ann Coulter.

From another part of the political spectrum, Andrew Exum, a former United States Army officer who blogs about “small wars and insurgencies” under the pen name Abu Muqawama, stood up for Mr. Kerry.

As Mr. Exum noted on Twitter, the original Reuters report that drew attention to the remark by putting it in a headline, also provided the context. Speaking in a country which values but still restricts free speech â€" Germany’s Basic Law, adopted after the defeat of the Nazi regime, still mandates a sentence of up to three years for anyone who “approves of, glorifies or justifies the violent and despotic rule of the National Socialists” in public â€" Mr. Kerry said:

We live and ! breathe t! he idea of religious freedom and religious tolerance, whatever the religion, and political freedom and political tolerance, whatever the point of view. I mean, you know, some people have sometimes wondered about why our Supreme Court allows one group or another to march in a parade, even though it’s the most provocative thing in the world, and they carry signs that are an insult to one group or another. And the reason is, that’s freedom, freedom of speech. In America you have a right to be stupid, if you want to be, and you have a right to be disconnected to somebody else if you want to be. And we tolerate it. We somehow make it through that. Now, I think that’s a virtue. I think that’s something worth fighting for.

What is important, Mr. Kerry concluded, “is to have the tolerance to say, you know, ‘You can have a different point of view.’”