US Secretary of State John Kerry.  Picture: REUTERS
US Secretary of State John Kerry. Picture: REUTERS

BERLIN — Secretary of State John Kerry offered a defence of freedom of speech, religion and thought in the US on Tuesday, telling German students in his country "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," Mr Kerry told the students in Berlin, the second stop on his inaugural trip as secretary of state.

"People have sometimes wondered 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 to laughter. "And you have a right to be disconnected to somebody else if you want to be.

"The important thing is to have the tolerance to say, you know, you can have a different point of view."

After stops in London and Berlin, Mr Kerry is due to visit Paris, Rome, Ankara, Cairo, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha, returning to Washington on March 6.

While speaking to the students and earlier to US diplomats, Mr Kerry reminisced about the time he spent in Berlin in the ’50s as the intrepid son of a US diplomat.

"I used to have great adventures. My bicycle and I were best friends. And I biked all around this city. I remember biking down Kurfurstendamm and seeing nothing but rubble. This was in 1954 … the war was very much still on people’s minds," he said, 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.

"I 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."