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Kerry defends liberties, says Americans have "right to be stupid"

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speak to media at the Chancellery in Berlin February 26, 2013. REUTER
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speak to media at the Chancellery in Berlin February 26, 2013. REUTER

BERLIN (Reuters) - Secretary of State John Kerry offered a defense of freedom of speech, religion and thought in the United States on Tuesday telling German students that in America "you have a right to be stupid if you want to be."

"As a country, as a society, we live and breathe the idea of religious freedom and religious tolerance, whatever the religion, and political freedom and political tolerance, whatever the point of view," Kerry told the students in Berlin, the second stop on his inaugural trip as secretary of state.

"People have sometimes wondered about why our Supreme Court allows one group or another to march in a parade even though it's the most provocative thing in the world and they carry signs that are an insult to one group or another," he added.

"The reason is, that's freedom, freedom of speech. In America you have a right to be stupid - if you want to be," he said, prompting laughter. "And you have a right to be disconnected to somebody else if you want to be.

"And we tolerate it. We somehow make it through that. Now, I think that's a virtue. I think that's something worth fighting for," he added. "The important thing is to have the tolerance to say, you know, you can have a different point of view."

Kerry made the comments on his first foreign trip since becoming secretary of state on February 1. After one-night stops in London and Berlin, he visits Paris, Rome, Ankara, Cairo, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha before returning to Washington on March 6.

While speaking to the students and earlier to U.S. diplomats, Kerry reminisced about the time he spent in Berlin in the 1950s as the intrepid son of an American diplomat and retold a story of sneaking across to East Berlin with his bike.

"I used to have great adventures. My bicycle and I were best friends. And I biked all around this city. I remember biking down Kurfuerstendamm and seeing nothing but rubble. This was in 1954 ... the war was very much still on people's minds," he told the diplomats, referring to West Berlin's main shopping avenue.

"One day, using my diplomatic passport, I biked through the checkpoint right into the east sector and noticed very quickly how dark and unpopulated (it was) and sort of unhappy people looked," he added, saying it left an impression "that hit this 12-year-old kid."

"I kind of felt a foreboding about it and I didn't spend much time. I kind of skedaddled and got back out of there and went home and proudly announced to my parents what I had done and was promptly grounded and had my passport pulled," he added.

"As a 12-year-old, I saw the difference between East and West," he later told the students. "I never made another trip like that. But I have never forgotten it. And now, it's vanished, vanished."

(This story is refiled to correct typo in paragraph 4)

(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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