Remarks at the Association of Hungarian Journalists (MUOSZ)

Ambassador Shakir Fakili, President Gabor Komlosi, Honorary President Eva Keleti, Vice President Maria Gonczi, Vice President Janos Harshegyi, Mr. Andras Trom, dear awardees, members of MUOSZ, ladies and gentlemen:

It is a great honor to be here today, and to join you as you present the Golden Pen awards to some of the many courageous and intrepid journalists among you.

Your work is critical to the broader aspirations of all Hungarians.  As the late Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter noted, “Free press is not an end of itself, but a means to the end of achieving a free society.”

As Americans, when we talk about journalism and the importance of a free press, we inevitably talk about the First Amendment to our Constitution.  In full, it reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

It is a source of pride to Americans that the very first rights protected under our new government were our rights to think, to believe, and to express ourselves peacefully.  We exercise these rights not only without fear of government retaliation, but with the full expectation that these most essential of individual rights would be protected by our government.  Our very American understanding of the essential meaning of what government is, that is, that the government is a protector of the rights of the people, is spelled out in the First Amendment clearly and unapologetically, reminding us that the collective good cannot be good if it fails to support the rights of individuals.

Freedom of expression is not an absolute right.  It is firmly rooted in the principle that the rights of the individual to express him or herself extend only so far as that expression does not intrude into the rights of others.  That these limitations are very few demonstrates the high value Americans place on this freedom.

The United States is one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse nations that has ever existed in human history.  The vast majority of Americans believe that we draw our prosperity and our sense of common purpose from that history.  But not all Americans agree with the free society our Founders envisioned, as we know all too well from the current political rhetoric we are hearing in the U.S.

We may not always live up to our ideals as enshrined in our Constitution, but as Americans, we recognize the importance of the struggle to try to do so.  We aspire to live up to the bold and noble aspirations of our Founding Fathers, and we celebrate the progress we have made toward living up to these high standards while continuing to fight against the lingering pockets of ignorance and fear.

It might seem paradoxical that the First Amendment — the proudest foundation of our diverse and free society — allows hateful speech, since hate speech is one of the biggest challenges to America achieving the promise of a society of true equality and mutual respect.  Indeed, the First Amendment protects some of the worst expressions of ignorance and fear; the kind of hate that crawls out from under rocks to show the darkest side of what we are unfortunately capable of as human beings.  It is painful to see in American politics even today that these ideas are not only a thing of the past.  We see the worst kinds of scapegoating of ethnic and socio-economic groups, channeling people’s anger away from a real debate of political issues toward a toxic culture of blaming people who are seen as “others.”

We can’t simply pretend that such ideas aren’t dangerous; our history has shown us otherwise.  Instead, how do we fight, from a place of moral principle, those who seem devoid of any moral or ethical sense?

For that, I quote another Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, who noted, “Persecution for the expression of opinions… seems to me to be perfectly logical.  If you have no doubt of your premises of your power and want a certain result with all your heart, you naturally express your wishes in law and keep away opposition….  But the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas—that the best test of truth is the power of thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”

By now, you might be wondering whether I’m going to continue with a legal lecture, but there is a point to this….

All of you here know, understand, and respect the awesome responsibility that journalists have to provide a counterbalance to ignorance, to hate, and to fear.

Wherever there is an imbalance, where only one side of any story is being told, a free press will seize on the opportunity to tell the other side of the story.  Where speakers spew hateful, crass ignorance, and where vague societal discontent and anger is misdirected toward those who are most vulnerable, it is the responsibility of the free press not just to report on the phenomenon, but to expose the evil for what it is: a mirage of lies.

Racists, xenophobes, and anti-Semites might say, “These are our opinions, and it is our right to express them.”  In the United States, under the First Amendment they have that right, but spewing hatred reveals them for what they are.  Journalists, especially good journalists like those you honor today, not only expose them, but also bring attention to the dangers of intolerance, and report with moral and ethical responsibility.

Even in countries like Hungary, where some hate speech is criminalized, there is a fundamental responsibility to rely not only on the government or the courts to address the problem, but for the press to publicly expose the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of those who would peddle racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism.

When you set out to be journalists, to choose this life’s work, many of you made that choice in a Hungary that was still living in oppression, behind the Iron Curtain.  Slowly, you and your colleagues chipped away, where you could, to shatter the barriers that impeded and discouraged open public thought, debate, and discourse.  A comment here, an adjective there, a cartoon that expressed more than a censor would understand.  Your courage then, and through the years, is extraordinary, and my colleagues and I salute you.

But your work—our work—is not done.  The freedom of speech that you fought for in Hungary for all Hungarians is not an end, but a means, as Justice Frankfurter noted.

We will never eradicate hatred, ignorance, and fear from human society.  It is a sobering fact, and it could deter someone of lesser courage.  But none of us in this room has chosen a life of avoiding challenges.  We will continue to fight, to inspire the next generation to be principled in continuing to fight, and we will constantly strive to shine the light of truth where darkness would dwell.

Thank you for your work, and thank you for inviting me to join you today.  It is an honor to be among you.