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Editorial Roundup: Excerpts from recent editorials

January 21, 2015

Excerpts from recent editorials in newspapers in the United States and abroad:

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Jan. 18

The Times, Gainesville, Georgia, on right to free expression:

The idea of free speech embedded into the U.S. Constitution 225 years ago remains an elusive goal ever under attack and in need of a diligent defense. Even as we Americans often don’t fully grasp its scope and meaning, what we hold as a fundamental right isn’t always acknowledged everywhere.

We have seen this play out in recent unrelated events, each of which follows a thread to ponder: Free expression isn’t a given, and where it exists, its consequences can be sobering. And the way government interacts with this exchange is vital to preserving that liberty.

Two weeks ago, Islamic extremists attacked the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people in retaliation for the publication’s caricatures of the prophet Muhammad. It was the latest violent act from zealots unwilling to accept beliefs outside of their own.

Thousands worldwide offered support for Charlie and all publications that take on sacred cows, though many still feel the magazine went beyond good taste in poking fun at others’ beliefs. The more advanced the society, the more willing it is to endure a wider range of ideas under the umbrella of freedom, even when those views may cross the line of decorum.

But unpopular ideas can carry risk. It’s up to those who express them to decide if they are worth the price. There remains a distinction in whether one can express something legally, and whether one should. The former is protected by law; the latter is up to our discretion. With all rights come the responsibility to use them wisely.

Pope Francis even weighed in on this with the view that ridiculing faith falls beyond the boundary of free expression. While we blanch at that notion, remember he’s a man of beliefs, not the law, so his domain is over what we “should” do and not what we “can.”

Those who defend the right to be offensive within the full gamut of free expression understand why “can” is of utmost importance. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution begins, “Congress shall make no law ...” restricting our ability to gather, speak, write or believe without government interference.

Yet government can only shield us from the results of our free expression to a point. There’s no bubble of protection from all of the consequences it incurs.

An incident close to home shed light on a different aspect of the topic. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed fired Police Chief Kelvin Cochran over a book the chief wrote that included Cochran’s ideas on homosexuality. Reed claims Cochran violated city rules for not following the proper procedures to approve his book. Cochran and his backers claim he is being discriminated against for his religious views.

Anyone is entitled to opine that Reed “shouldn’t” have fired Cochran, but as the boss, he certainly “can.” Employers can take such action if free speech is inconsistent with a company’s message or mission. If you stand in the middle of the office and espouse offensive views, you’ll likely be shown the door. You won’t be thrown in jail; the First Amendment protects your choice to speak, but it doesn’t promise you a job.

There are laws against workplace discrimination targeting skin color, gender or physical disability, factors beyond anyone’s control. But expression of beliefs is a choice. If you don’t like your employer stifling your views, you’re free to work elsewhere.

Cochran’s supporters are among those pushing for a bill in the legislature that would support religious freedom in the workplace. One of the ideas behind it may be the backlash over the Affordable Care Act mandate that companies must provide birth control prescription coverage even if it contradicts their faith.

Here is a case where the government may indeed be taking sides in the consequences of free speech. The ACA requirement already was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case last year. The laws created in reaction to it may not hold up, either, depending on what behaviors they address.

The bottom line here is that the First Amendment keeps the government from intervening on matters of faith or speech unless it endangers someone (yelling “fire!” in a crowd, for instance). And as long as those 45 words remain in effect, additional laws affirming the right to believe as we wish, at work or anywhere else, do not seem necessary.

It’s also worth noting free expression of faith in the workplace is a concept many may endorse when the beliefs match their own, but not as much when it involves someone else’s. We can’t have it both ways; if religious freedom doesn’t apply to all, no one is free.

And let’s add a historical example on the weekend we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When King and his followers marched peacefully 50 years ago demanding equal rights, the response of many law enforcement officials (the government) was to attack them with beatings, fire hoses and dogs.

That response was a First Amendment violation, government representatives choosing sides in the free speech debate. In doing so, they resorted to violent oppression used by totalitarian regimes that imprison political dissidents and punish anyone who opposes those in power.

In that sense, the local leaders who sought to suppress marchers’ rights were no better than the despots from banana republics who don’t respect freedom of any kind, from speech on down the line. And they will do anything to silence it, often in the name of their god.

All these cases point out how freedom of expression is a complicated right that requires tolerance from all sides, and that often is lacking. And we’re reminded our blessed First Amendment, while it gives us the liberty to say, pray and gather as we wish, can’t always protect us from the consequences of those actions.

So the debate goes on, as it should. Let’s hope we gain a little more insight each time on the way to creating a nation and a world that fully honors the liberties we cherish.

Online:

http://www.gainesvilletimes.com

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Jan. 19

Los Angeles Times on Radif Badawi:

A blogger in Saudi Arabia who was convicted of insulting Islam and sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes received his first 50 lashes by cane in a public square a little more than a week ago. His second round of lashing, scheduled for last Friday, was postponed after a doctor found that he had yet to heal from the first.

The cruel, retrograde punishment of Raif Badawi has drawn worldwide condemnation, and Amnesty International has deemed him a prisoner of conscience and called for his release. Badawi’s “crime” was operating a now defunct blog, the Free Saudi Liberal Network, which fostered political and social debate over Islam and liberalism.

Badawi wrote about whether those two concepts were compatible, critiqued the religious police and ran posts by others critical of Saudi institutions. That initially got him jailed and charged in 2012 with apostasy — renunciation of his religion — which is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. In 2013, he was found guilty of the lesser charges of insulting Islam and violating the information technology laws; on appeal, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes.

The right to freedom of expression is not some peculiar American obsession. It is a universal human right, and those who exercise it should neither be killed by terrorists nor imprisoned by their governments. It’s especially hypocritical for Saudi officials, who publicly condemned the acts of violence in Paris against the Charlie Hebdo staff, to condone the brutal beating of a citizen for freely expressing his opinions. (Of course, Saudi Arabia wasn’t the only country to condemn the events in France despite a poor record on freedom of speech. Egypt, Turkey and Russia all sent officials to the Paris march.)

Not only is Badawi’s punishment utterly disproportionate to his crime, but his crime shouldn’t even be considered a crime. The Saudis should immediately end all plans to inflict physical torture upon Badawi.

Online:

http://www.miamiherald.com

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Jan. 19

The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on Tax Foundation report:

The rich get richer because they don’t pay enough federal income taxes. Ergo, the poor stay poor even if they don’t pay any income taxes.

This seems to be the belief of Barack Obama and his fellow progressives. Obama used the tale quite successively to fend off a challenge from Mitt Romney in 2012. Romney, of course, was a poster child for the rich-don’t-pay-enough taxes narrative.

“Those who have done well, including me,” Obama said, “should pay our fair share in taxes to contribute to the nation that made our success possible.” The rich, he said, “shouldn’t get a better deal” than everyone else.

If the wealthy are getting a better deal, the word hasn’t gone out. Perhaps it’s only those nefarious 1-percenters who are getting the better deal. Perhaps it’s only the Koch Brothers?

New information from The Tax Foundation, gleaned from Obama’s own Internal Revenue Service, shows that in 2012 the top 5 percent earned 37 percent of total adjusted gross income but paid 59 percent of federal income taxes. Their effective tax rate was 21 percent.

Says Jared Meyer of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, “These data make it possible to fact-check the claim that in 2012, the rich skimped on their tax responsibilities at everyone else’s expense.”

Fact is, the top 1 percent alone paid 38 percent of all federal income taxes collected. They had an effective tax rate of 23 percent, or seven times higher than the rate paid by the bottom half of income earners. The bottom half earned 11 percent of total adjusted gross income but paid only 3 percent of taxes collected.

This isn’t an argument for raising taxes on lower-income or middle-income Americans. It’s a counter-argument to the trope that the rich don’t pay their “fair share” — whatever that is. If 50 percent of income earners are responsible for just 3 percent of tax collections, then the other half are paying 97 percent.

Consider that the top 10 percent are responsible for 70.2 percent of the total. So the other 90 percent are paying less than 30 percent. What do they get in exchange?

Congressional Budget Office data show that those who pay the most in federal income taxes get on average 19 cents of benefits for every dollar in taxes paid. Those who pay the least in taxes (or none at all), get $18.20 in benefits for every dollar collected from them.

Thus, says Meyer, “The rich are subsidizing middle-income as well as low-income Americans — the middle quintile of earners received $2.23 in benefits for each dollar they paid.”

It’s true that including state and local (where applicable) income taxes tends to skew the results. The numbers above concern only the federal income tax. But it was that tax alone to which Obama was referring in his “fair share” remarks.

Oklahoma’s personal income tax doesn’t favor the rich so much as it penalizes lower-income workers: The top marginal tax rate kicks in at a relatively low income level. That, rather than another top rate reduction, should be the focus of future tax system reform.

Washington’s initial income tax a century ago affected virtually nobody but the top 1 percent, the only ones subject to the tax. Over the years, Uncle Sam has reached down to get money for more and more income groups. Collections of all federal taxes was below 3 percent of gross domestic product before the income tax was started. The figure is now approaching 20 percent.

The Great Divider’s “fair share” rhetoric doesn’t reflect reality. What it may reflect, Meyer notes, is that Washington “needs more funds to become further entrenched in Americans’ lives.”

Online:

http://newsok.com

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Jan. 20

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on trouble in Ukraine:

The trouble in Ukraine continues after a year of bloodshed, with the latest fighting near the already leveled airport of Donetsk.

It started with the blow-up of the corrupt government of President Viktor Janukovych, who fled to Russia with nearly $17 billion looted from Ukraine’s treasury. He was succeeded in Kiev by President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

Then Russia peeled off Crimea and part of eastern Ukraine, including the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, based on its military strength and the Russian-speaking Ukrainians it backed and armed. The Ukrainian government has been right to fight to keep its territory.

Russia’s neighbors are following the conflict with keen interest. Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Moldova see the Russian action, particularly its support of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minority, as a threat to their own independence. Other European countries, including Germany, see Russia’s aggression as a threat, but also find the economic sanctions put on Russia by the West as a constraint on their conduct of business relations.

As usual, those who pay the price for the fighting are the ordinary people on the ground. It is estimated that nearly 5,000 have been killed since last April. The Donetsk airport and other infrastructure in eastern Ukraine have been destroyed.

An accord to end the fighting was reached under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in September between Russia, Ukraine and the separatists from Donetsk and Luhansk. Sadly, it has not been respected.

It is time for the OSCE, the United Nations Security Council and other international elements to insist to all parties that the killing and destruction in Ukraine stop now.

Online:

http://www.post-gazette.com

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Jan. 21

Khaleej Times, Dubai, on vision for America:

In his State of the Union address, the United States president — who excels in his rhetoric skills — said that it’s time to focus more on values than policies. Proudly declaring that recession is an issue of yesteryears, Obama promised policies that will benefit the American across the board, to what he termed “middle-class economics.” Apparently acting in the footprints of his predecessor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Obama wants to usher in a New Deal wherein families can help plan for the foreseeable future, as their concerns on social welfare are taken care of by the state.

Urging Americans to turn a new page after the worst recession since the Depression of 1933-38, he said it’s time to commit to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone. Obama’s outlook will closely be judged in the light of his performance in terms of health care, immigration and taxing the rich. The salient features of his vision were: to raise minimum wages, help millions of students pay for college fee, stringent consumer protection laws and last but not the least to shut down the notorious prison in Guantanamo. Iran, Cuba and involvement in the Middle East are other issues that are likely to widen the gap between the White House and Congress.

The million-dollar question, however, is will the Republican-dominated Congress allow him to tread the path of opportunities for all or obstruct his executive decisions by legislating to the contrary? Some veterans on Capitol Hill have already dismissed Obama’s landmark speech on America’s future as one based on class warfare! The president has to walk the talk to leave behind a legacy that is futuristic in essence.

Online:

http://www.khaleejtimes.com

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