David Ignatius, one of the Washington Post Writers Group, recently wrote an article (widely syndicated under different headlines) on The case for spreading press freedom around the world, in support of Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University‘s call for a global “First Amendment” (i.e. a global guarantee of freedom of speech, imposed by the US). In that article he mentions that “Bollinger’s call for a global First Amendment has been criticized as too chauvinistic. But the world’s embrace of the Internet tells me that we’re on the right side of history on this one.”

I am a strong advocate of freedom of expression myself, but I find the analysis of both Bollinger and Ignatius to be missing some important elements here. There is indeed a chauvinistic assumption here that lies at the heart of the US’ attitude to the world at large. America seeks to impose certain thing on others, largely those which large power blocs within the US see as in their own interests (consider the capture of US trade policy by a small group of “intellectual property” businesses charged by Drahos and Braithwaite in their book “Information Feudalism“). An attempt to directly impose the US first amendment on other countries is indeed chauvinistic. However, there is a moral high ground that the US could legitimately take, though it is highly unlikely to do so. First, it could expand the scope of US constitutional guarantees and in particular the first amendment guarantees of freedom of speech, to all human beings within the scope of US dominion. Second it could enjoin all US-based companies from engaging in activities violating those rights anywhere in the world.

At present as a non-US citizen even when I visit the US I do not enjoy the fundamental right to freedom of expression. Indeed as shown by the case of Peter Watts, beaten up by a US immigration official and then prosecuted and convicted for non-compliance with a border official when he asked why he was being assaulted, and the case of the Guantanamo Bay detainees (and others in Bagram Air Base) other basic liberties such as Habeas Corpus also do not apply to non-US citizens under effective US dominion.

While I am a Bright and not a religious person, the New Testament comment about specks, beams and eyes comes to mind. Before the US starts trying to impose its particular constitutional settlement on others, it should first ensure that its constitutional settlement is appropriately fair and universally applicable within the legitimate scope of its own authority.