Paul Greenberg

They set a table for the president of the United States in the presence of his country's enemies at this year's session of the UN General Assembly. But this time, instead of apologizing for American principles, Barack Obama stepped forward to defend them -- after weeks of pussyfooting around them. And they were first principles, too, as in the First Amendment with its words about freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

What a refreshing change from the quivering silence, followed by fulsome apologias, with which Washington first greeted the murderous assaults on our legations throughout the Islamic world. This time, the president's voice was clear, direct, forceful, grounded in American history and principles:

"Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views -- even views that we disagree with." Freedom of speech, he pointed out, is inseparable from freedom of religion, for "efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics or oppress minorities. ... Given the power of faith in our lives and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech."

An Oliver Wendell Holmes or Louis Dembitz Brandeis could scarcely have put the American faith in freedom better. Yes, the president's speech contained the usual boilerplate distancing this country from that stupid little video insulting the Prophet Mohammed -- the one that has been used as an excuse for arson and murder by al-Qaida types, and by all those who seek to appease them. As if it were necessary to explain to civilized people that, because a free country allows bad ideas to be expressed, it must mean we endorse them.

This time, it was the president's defense of American freedoms that captured the headlines, and should have. That was the part of his speech that was new -- and news. Good news, welcome news. This president can listen to his critics after all, and even change course.

It was particularly refreshing to hear Barack Obama defend freedom of religion after all his administration has done, and continues to do, to restrict that freedom for faiths who still believe in the sanctity of human life, specifically the Roman Catholic Church.

This administration has tried to tell churches what teachers they must hire or fire in their religious schools, and force Catholic schools, hospitals and universities to subsidize practices that go against the church's beliefs -- like contraception, sterilization and abortion. That struggle between a church and a state seeking to intrude on its beliefs continues even as the president utters fine words about freedom of religion.

But at least he said the right words in this occasion. Which is more than one can say for a law professor at the University of Arkansas -- one Steve Sheppard. The professor contends that this shady little video that has been inflated into a cause célèbre from Tunis to Bangladesh should have been censored by our government.

"We shouldn't allow speech that's designed to do nothing but hurt," the professor said the other day. So why not just call it thoughtcrime and squelch it? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad couldn't have put the case against freedom of speech any better, or worse.

Do you think the professor has reviewed the First Amendment lately? It is quite explicit. It says Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. It doesn't say Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech except when that speech hurts other people's feelings, or offends public opinion abroad, or is used as an excuse to attack our embassies and kill our diplomats. It just says no law. You'd think that would be clear enough even for a member of our professoriate. Apparently it isn't.

Ah, well, there is some consolation: At least the professor is teaching law, not logic or reading.

In another bulletin from the frontiers of civilization, in this case New York City, a good ol' boy from Arkansas -- Greg Nelson of Fayetteville, Ark., -- made the news, and garnered plaudits from a New York tabloid, by pushing around an Iranian envoy on the sidewalks of New York.

That is not how Americans should treat foreign diplomats, or any guest of our country. It is the kind of behavior that can safely be left to foreign mobs. But it seems Americans, too, aren't free from mob passions, as anybody who made it through the bad old Faubusian days in the South can testify.

Let this much be said in defense, well, in mitigation of Greg Nelson's behavior: Even he now regrets it. "I wish I hadn't done that," he says. "I'm not a violent man. I got caught up in all the excitement." Kind of like the rabble in Benghazi or Cairo.

The ultimate defense of American freedoms, like freedom of speech, lies not in laws and constitutions, but in something within a free people: self-control. Without it, all the grand speeches in the world won't much matter. Learned Hand said it: "Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it."


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.