Our Opinion: Case is a reminder of free speech

Published 10:22 am Friday, January 17, 2014

In America, we are fortunate to have our speech protected by the First Amendment, and nothing illustrates that better than the case of Woodbury man Shezanne Cassim, who was jailed for nine months in the United Arab Emirates for creating a parody video and uploading it on YouTube.

Cassim was arrested in April and had been held at a maximum security prison in Abu Dhabi since June. Cassim said he and his co-defendants had no idea what they were accused of, and waited months before they were told why they were arrested.

It turned out they were accused of defaming the country’s image abroad. His video pokes fun at the youth in the Satwa district of Dubai. It even begins by saying it is fictional and not meant to offend. It makes fun of youth in Dubai who pretend to be “gangstas.”

Email newsletter signup

Cassim, 29, is a U.S. citizen who was born in Sri Lanka and was living in Dubai for work after graduating from the University of Minnesota.

The UAE authorities enforce laws arbitrarily, particularly social media laws in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings through the Middle East.

Cassim’s lawyer, Susan Burns, made an interesting comment when she told the Associated Press: “To me it has been an incredibly frustrating experience trying to get this young man released for an innocent posting of a video.”

Imagine if U.S. authorities had the same power and imagine the confusing, troubling, never-functioning body of law that would be needed to deal with content critical of the government. Frustrating, indeed. And think about the limitations on technology — and the loss of tech and media jobs — that would be brought about by a lack of free-speech protections.

The free-speech protections in the First Amendment are part of the Bill of Rights. They are called “amendments” because we nearly didn’t have them. The Constitution itself did not guarantee many freedoms to the people, and it took these amendments — these changes — to get the Constitution to be ratified by the states.

If it weren’t for people in the late 1700s demanding these rights, what happened to Cassim could very well happen here. Free speech has turned out to be essential to a vibrant democracy, so much so that we pretty much take it for granted — until cases this like come along.

Nine months for a joke video? It’s still hard to believe. Cassim said the United Arab Emirates put him in jail to send a message.

It sent the message to not make a video in that country, for sure, but it also sent another message to Americans: Don’t travel to the United Arab Emirates.