The concept of universal rights is not new, but those rights have been absorbed by much of humanity over the past half century. Many countries that joined the United Nations and gave lip service to rights have slowly been forced to honor them. And for good reason. Individual liberties, such as the right of free speech, religion, or association, reflect a view of individuals as inherently capable of self-government. The natural state of humanity tends toward more freedom, not less.
Last year, the watchdog group Freedom House found the percentage of people living in either a free or partly free country is 65 percent. In the past three decades, the number of countries in those categories has risen to 76 from 61.
Also last year, the Saudi-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation, an alliance of 56 Muslim nations, was persuaded by the United States to give up its long campaign to have the UN outlaw blasphemous speech and instead accept a resolution that calls open debate of ideas as “among the best protections against religious intolerance.”
Free speech, or protection against government censorship, isn’t an easy right to uphold. In the US, the Supreme Court has limited it in some circumstances, such as cases where children might be harmed (pornography) or when purposely provocative speech can cause imminent harm (crying "fire" in a crowded theater). Europe has more restrictions, such as Germany’s ban against speech that denies the Holocaust. Western countries also have trouble trying to define “hate speech,” which is often a crime.
Even these limits on freedom of expression, however, are becoming more difficult to maintain when social media companies, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google’s YouTube, spread words and images so widely and so quickly. Their power to influence global events instantly even had President Obama asking Google last Thursday if its own rules would call for taking down the offending video.