Category: Individual Liberty

We’ve had an amazing collection of speakers participating in the 2015 Acton Lecture Series, and today we’re pleased to be able to share the video of one of the highlights of the series: George Weigel’s discussion of ten essential things to know about Pope Francis, which he delivered on May 6th.

Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D. C. An eminent Catholic theologian, he’s the author of numerous books, most famously Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II; he’s also a columnist, commentator, and regular guest on radio and TV to discuss Catholic issues. There are few who are better qualified to examine the always surprising and sometimes controversial papacy of Pope Francis.

We present the video of Weigel’s lecture below, and after the jump I’ve included a recent edition of Radio Free Acton, which features a discussion between Weigel, Acton Institute President Rev. Robert A. Sirico, and our Director of Research Samuel Gregg.

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32045208“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

That line was written in 1906 by Evelyn Beatrice Hall to describe Voltaire’s attitude towards a fellow rival French philosopher. For the next hundred years that line was often quoted to express a particularly American ideal of toleration and the importance of free speech.

But something changed over the past few decades. Certain offensive speech has been deemed not only utterly indefensible, but excludable from First Amendment protections. A prime example was found on Twitter a few days ago when Chris Cuomo, a CNN anchor, law school graduate, and son of the New York governor, wrote that “hate speech is excluded from protection.”

That claim, of course, is nonsense. As legal scholar Eugene Volokh says, “Hateful ideas (whatever exactly that might mean) are just as protected under the First Amendment as other ideas. One is as free to condemn Islam — or Muslims, or Jews, or blacks, or whites, or illegal aliens, or native-born citizens — as one is to condemn capitalism or Socialism or Democrats or Republicans.”

There are forms of unprotected speech, Volokh notes, but it has nothing to do with “hate speech”:
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weeping statueIf one decides to destroy the American Dream, there are a few steps that would be necessary.

  1. Put Big Government in charge. The average American can’t figure out his or her own dreams, let alone what it would take to make them a reality.
  2. Tell Americans that without the government, the American Dream is hopeless.
  3. Produce a lengthy document about the American Dream. Leave out the word “freedom,” let alone the idea of freedom.
  4. Let people know that “freedom” (without actually using the word) is quite harmful. Don’t worry, thought, Big Government will protect you.

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discourseYou’ve heard of that mythical place where elephants go to die? Apparently, these giants “know” they are going to die, and they head off to a place known only to them.

Free speech in the United States goes off to die as well, but there is no myth surrounding this. Free speech dies in our colleges and universities. Just ask American Enterprise Institute’s Christina Sommers. Sommers is a former philosophy professor and AEI scholar who recently spoke at Oberlin College. Her speech was excellent, but it apparently frightened the pants off a bunch of students (oh, I probably can’t say that. It likely makes someone feel violated.) They paraded outside the room where Sommers spoke, holding signs invoking “trigger warnings” and announcing a “safe room” where those who found Sommers’ talk too much to handle. Her topic? “What’s Right (And Wrong) With Feminism.” She was harassed and harangued both in-person and online for daring to speak such words. (more…)

witherspoonIn the spring of 1776, John Witherspoon preached his first sermon on political matters, about a month before he was elected to the Continental Congress. The sermon, “The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men,” is a fascinating exploration of how God can work through human crises, and how even the “wrath of man” can lead us to glorify God in unexpected ways.

Surrounded by the conflict of the Revolution, Witherspoon calls on his countrymen to “return to duty,” neither letting blind rage get the best of them, nor retreating out of fear or for idols of security and “peace.” Yet while all this is directed specifically to the crisis of his time, I’m struck by how far his wisdom actually applies.

In today’s context, our conflicts vary, from economic woes to fights about religious liberty to racial tensions to terrorist threats to brazen abuses of power and authority within the halls of our own government. In each area, we can benefit from Witherspoon’s advice, learning to “hearken the rod” when times get tough, not only in terms of our own salvation, but for the sake and the cause of a free and virtuous society. (more…)

cartoon free speechThankfully, a bunch of attorneys did not write the founding documents of our nation. Otherwise, we’d be stuck with a Bill of Rights about 700 pages long, and a “we’ll have to pass it to find out what’s in there” attitude. Instead, we have simple things, like Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. That’s easy, isn’t it?

Not to everyone. As NRO’s Jonah Goldberg notes, some folks think that free speech has a whole bunch of clauses, sub-sets or rules that apply before you can actually say what’s on  your mind. He is particularly upset that there are a number of people who believe that it’s okay to say what’s on your mind, as long as it isn’t upsetting to, well, Muslims. (more…)

chinamapMany Muslims believe the use of tobacco products is forbidden (haram) because “tobacco is unwholesome, and God says in the Qur’an that the Prophet, peace be upon him, ‘enjoins upon them that which is good and pure, and forbids them that which is unwholesome’.” Similarly, the Quran prohibits the use of intoxicants, such as alcohol, and considers such use to be sinful. For these reasons, many Muslim shopkeepers consider it against their religious beliefs to sell alcohol and cigarettes.

The refusal to engage in those vices does not sit well with the leaders in Xinjiang, a region of northwest China. The fact that some Muslims do not smoke is even considered “a form of religious extremism.” According to Adil Sulayman, a local party official in the region, “We have a campaign to weaken religion here and this is part of that campaign.”

As part of the campaign the Chinese authorities have issued an order in the Muslim Uyghur village that “all restaurants and supermarkets in our village should place five different brands of alcohol and cigarettes in their shops before [May 1, 2015].” In addition to directing owners to create “eye-catching displays” to promote the products, the April 29 announcement stated that “anybody who neglects this notice and fails to act will see their shops sealed off, their business suspended, and legal action pursued against them.”

“Our village is the key village—we have to implement the ‘Weaken Religion’ campaign effectively,” says Sulayman, “Religious sentiment is increasing and this is affecting stability.”
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tosUpdate (May 10, 2015): JPay has provided the following statement: 

In response to your article, How a Terms-of-Service Agreement Can Land You in Solitary Confinement, JPay has removed that language from our Terms of Service and made the below statement.

“It has recently come to our attention that there is language in our Terms of Service that impacts our customers and their families. The language states that JPay owns all content transmitted through our Email, VideoGram and Video Visitation services. Our intention was never to take ownership and profit in any way from our customers’ content. That is not and has never been JPay’s business and we have removed this language from our Terms of Service.  From its inception, JPay has pledged to make our customers our top priority and we will continually strive to meet this pledge as best and as quickly as we can.”

For just about every service you use online, like Facebook or iTunes, you have to agree to a company’s “terms-of-service” (TOS) agreement. Most of us don’t bother to read the TOS; we merely click the “I Agree” button and get on with our lives. We aren’t likely to suffer any negative ramifications from our failure to read the fine print.

The same can’t be said, though, for the users of JPay, a company that provides digital communications systems to corrections facilities in at least 19 states. As their website says, JPay offers a variety of services for inmates and their families: “Send money to your loved one in state prison. Email your cousin in county jail. Chat with a friend using video visitation or give the gift of music with the JP4® player.”

But there’s a catch. Buried in JPay’s lengthy TOS is this clause:

You … acknowledge that JPay owns all of the content, including any text, data, information, images, or other material, that you transmit through the Service.

As Dave Maass of the Electronic Frontier Foundation explains, this means:
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handsonoriginalsBlaine Adamson is the owner of Hands On Originals, a printing company in Fayette County, Kentucky. Like almost every printer since Gutenberg, Mr. Adamson believed he had the right to decide what items his conscience would allow him to print and which he’d have to reject. Indeed, his company regularly declines to print expressive materials because of the message that they display.

When he was asked to print shirts promoting the Lexington Pride Festival, a gay pride event, Adamson politely declined and offered to recommend another printer who would do the work for the same price. (The group found another printer to do the work free of charge.) Adamson says he would be disobeying God if he printed materials that suggested people should take “pride” in immoral sexual activities.

You can probably predict what happened next.

A representative of the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization filed suit against Mr. Adamson with the local “human rights commission.” Although Mr. Adamson has never refused to provide his services to homosexual customers and has hired at least six employees who identity as gay or lesbian, he was charged with discriminating against individuals because of their sexual orientation. Not surprisingly, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission ruled that Adamson was guilty of discrimination and was required to print a message that offended his beliefs.

Fortunately, there are some government entities still left in the land that believe First Amendment protections still apply. Earlier today the Fayette Circuit Court reversed the commission’s decision. The court wrote in its decision:
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“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” is the most famous quote by the English Catholic historian Sir John Dalberg-Acton. It also appers to be the overriding theme of the recent teaser-trailer for the movie Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

The quote is even stated directly in the trailer in a voiceover (by actress Holly Hunter). Is it applicable in this context? Would Lord Acton agree that absolute power has corrupted Superman? I think he would.

That particular quote comes from a letter to Bishop Creighton in which Lord Acton explains that historians should condemn murder, theft, and violence whether committed by an individual, the state, or the Church. Here is the context:
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