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Obama v. Romney in a free expression faceoff

How do the U.S. presidential candidates measure up when it comes to freedom of expression issues, largely sidelined in recent debates? Here, we've collected what Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have said and done on some of the key themes, from their stances on WikiLeaks to online privacy.

Based on their free expression track records, who would you vote for? Let us know in the online poll below.

Willard "Mitt" Romney
Barack H. Obama
Barack H. Obama
Copyright Protection v. Digital Rights

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) sparked mass protests and an Internet blackout earlier this year. Why? Their far-reaching language suggested websites could be shut down just because of something a user posted, if it infringed intellectual property rights.

"The law as written is far too intrusive, far too expansive, far too threatening to freedom of speech and movement of information across the Internet," Romney said after the blackout, expressing his opposition to both SOPA and PIPA.

But neither Romney nor his party have opposed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) – also known as "SOPA light" – an international pact between numerous industrialised countries to combat piracy. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) says the legislation requires web hosts to "police" those who post on their domains. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) fears the legislation could be used to invade privacy and track dissidents, as well as go after Internet websites that allow anonymous free speech in the face of government crackdowns.

Although Obama said earlier this year he won't support SOPA and PIPA in their current forms, he's still taking a tough stance on the Internet's grey zone of copyright infringement. According to The New York Times, the Obama administration has closed down 800 websites accused of piracy in the past two years.

In a high-profile case, the Obama administration is seeking the extradition to the U.S. of 24-year-old British citizen Richard O'Dwyer, whose website allegedly linked to sites that streamed pirated shows. O'Dwyer's supporters, including Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales, say prosecuting someone who essentially hosts a search engine sets a dangerous precedent. O'Dwyer faces up to 10 years in jail.

In late 2011, Obama endorsed ACTA but the U.S. has yet to ratify the treaty.

Freedom of Assembly

In October 2011, as new manifestations of the Occupy movement against social and economic inequality were springing up outside New York, Romney was asked about his thoughts on Occupy. "I think it's dangerous – this class warfare," he told reporters.

Another time, when accused of only caring about the 1 percent, Romney accused protesters of "trying to divide the nation," and exclaimed "America's right, and you're wrong!"

Despite Romney's off-hand dismissal, the Occupy protests have exposed the tenuous nature of the rights of freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the U.S. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), more than 80 journalists in various cities suffered police violence while covering Occupy protests.

When Occupy protesters interrupted Obama during a speech in November, to his credit, he let them say their piece. Referring to the violent arrests and attacks on protesters, they noted in a statement, "Your silence sends a message that police brutality is acceptable."

While Obama still hasn't publicly condemned police brutality during peaceful protests, he did instruct law enforcement to refrain from arresting Occupy protesters camped on federal property in Oakland, California. According to emails released this August, the White House said police should only intervene if there is a threat to public safety.

Free Expression v. Defamation of Religion

The night of the 11 September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which at the time looked like revenge for the anti-Islam film The Innocence of Muslims, Romney expressed his outrage at a statement put out by the U.S. embassy in Cairo.

The statement rejected "efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims," referring to the video, in an effort to cool tensions in the area.

"It's disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathise with those who waged the attacks," Romney said.

Romney said the embassy issued "what appeared to be an apology for American principles, 'highlighting' our Constitutional rights of speech, and assembly, and religion."

However, Romney may be less willing to respect the free speech rights of Muslims. In 2006, he tried to block a Harvard public lecture by former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami by ordering state agencies against providing security. Romney accused Khatami, a moderate, of being an extremist and called the visit a "disgrace." Harvard University pressed on with the event, relying on local and federal police, and justified the decision by explaining that good policy is informed by open debate.

The embassy statement that Romney criticised so forcefully was in fact released before the attack on the diplomatic missions and was never endorsed by Obama. Nevertheless, when news emerged that four Americans were killed in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Obama connected the issues, condemning the senseless attack while saying that the United States "rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others." More disturbingly, the White House asked Google to consider removing the offending video from its YouTube website.

Two weeks later, Obama did a U-turn. He vigorously defended free expression in an address to the UN General Assembly, including the right of individuals to "blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs." "The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech," he said on 25 September.

Funding for Independent Media, Arts, Humanities

In the first presidential debate, Romney promised to cut funding to the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). PBS's mandate is to improve literacy skills among children, showcase arts and inform Americans on topics including public affairs, history and science. Government funding to the channel costs each American approximately $1.35 per year, according to PBS.

Romney, in step with the party line, has also proposed eliminating another publicly funded media company, National Public Radio (NPR), as well as the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), according to CNN. NEA provides grants – and jobs in the process – to visual artists, filmmakers, theatre productions, and more. NEH, meanwhile, supports universities, authors, academics, museums, archives and more.

Obama has said he will maintain funding to PBS and NPR. His 2011-2012 budget reduced funding to NEA by 13.3 percent. In a recent about-face, however, for the next budget, he has announced 5.5 percent increases for both NEA and NEH.

In 2011, the Obama administration expressed support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which was created by Congress in 1967 and funds local community stations, programmes that cater to America's minorities and other independent television and radio. "CPB serves an important public purpose in supporting public radio, television, and related online and mobile services," the administration said.

WikiLeaks and National Security

Romney hasn't made any specific comments about the online whistleblower WikiLeaks, which leaked classified U.S. diplomatic cables that exposed war crimes committed by the U.S. army in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, high-profile members of the Republican Party have taken an aggressive stance against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, calling him a "terrorist".

Romney has repeatedly dodged questions about Bradley Manning, the soldier who is the alleged source of confidential U.S. diplomatic cables and is now being prosecuted for treason. Romney said he doesn't know the details and doesn't think he should comment on a specific legal case. Manning's supporters say his silence on the issue is an indication he wouldn't intervene to end the U.S. military's political targeting of Manning.

Shortly after WikiLeaks published classified U.S. diplomatic cables in November 2010, the White House issued a directive forbidding unauthorised federal employees from accessing them. The Library of Congress and State Department responded a few hours later by blocking access to WikiLeaks from their computers. The U.S. Air Force blocked access to WikiLeaks as well as the websites of the five newspapers that had worked closely with the online whistleblower to publish the cables.

Under Obama's leadership, the U.S. government continues to attempt to extradite Assange to the U.S, where he could face life imprisonment or even, some supporters fear, the death penalty.

In 2011, Obama said Manning, who has been held since June 2010, "broke the law." The statement was made despite the fact that Manning hasn't even faced trial yet. Manning has been held almost entirely in solitary confinement, leading the UN Special Rapporteur on torture to call his treatment "cruel, inhuman and degrading."

Obama's tough stance on security issues is also reflected in the treatment of Ibrahim Jassam, a journalist accused of distributing material about insurgent attacks. He was held for more than 1.5 years without charges, after U.S. military forces finally released him in 2010. CPJ says the U.S. military has held at least 14 journalists on non-existent or trumped-up charges.

Online Privacy

Both the Obama and Romney campaigns gather information about voters' online habits to determine how they should be targeted. As Amy Goodman of "Democracy Now!" explains, "The Obama and Romney campaigns are purchasing an unprecedented amount of personal information, including everything from religious ties, interest in pornographic sites, product preferences, financial status, social media affiliations, and whether a voter has gay friends."

In addition to mining online networks to get data on potential voters, Obama's administration is also mining information for security reasons, according to EFF and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "Non-content" Internet and phone surveillance – including phone times and numbers, websites visited, and "to" and "from" information in emails – has quadrupled in Obama's presidency, says ACLU. In July 2012, EFF revealed that law enforcement had made millions of requests for cell phone user data in 2011, seeking everything from text messages to subscriber data.

Meanwhile, Obama's government has repeatedly used "state secrets" legislation to block court requests to disclose information on illegal wiretapping by the Bush, and possibly in his own, administration, according to news reports.

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