Why is free speech necessary for a free society? As Deirdre McCloskey, an economist, historian, and rhetorician, explains, persuasion is the only alternative to violence. A free society is a speaking, rather than violent, society.
The all-girl Russian punk band, which in February pulled its juvenile, blasphemous stunt on the ambon of one of Russian Orthodoxy’s holiest places of worship, has generated an unending stream of twaddle from so many commentators who betray a deep, willfully ignorant grasp of Christianity and a perfectly secular mindset.
Commentator Dmitry Babich on the Voice of Russia observed that “the three female members of the group, who called the Patriarch ‘a bitch’ and ‘the God’s excrement’ in the holiest of the holy (the altar of Russia’s main Orthodox cathedral), were lionized by nearly all Western press.”
Did the band members deserve two years in prison? No — a massive over reaction. But imagine if the girls had pulled their punk-stunt in the United States in, say, a mosque or a synagogue or a liberal church, and directed that kind of language at the minister or imam. How would the Western media have reacted? (Even so, they might have qualified for a National Endowment for the Arts grant).
An update on my post about “Canada’s Faltering Freedom” a few weeks ago: Common sense seems to have prevailed up north, as Canada’s human rights commission dismissed a complaint against journalist Mark Steyn for comments made about Islam, while the same body cleared a Catholic magazine of wrongdoing for its comments about homosexuality.
Rightfully, religious leaders in Canada are not relaxing in the wake of these minor victories. Citing other abuses by provincial human rights panels, Calgary’s Bishop Frederick Henry is leading a charge for reforming Alberta’s—and the nation’s—human rights commissions. Godspeed, bishop.
The problem is not unique to Canada, nor entirely absent from the US, but our neighbors to the north seem to be doing their best at the moment to lead the so-called free world in denying what Americans call the First Amendment rights (speech, religion, etc.). In fact, the Canadian government’s quashing of the expression of opinion—executed through its “human rights commission”—is downright frightening. It is trite to describe this kind of thing as Orwellian, but that’s what it is.
In Canada and elsewhere, the unpopular opinions most in danger of being declared verboten tend to revolve around two issues: Islam and homosexuality.
This recent piece by David Warren in the Ottawa Citizen recounts some other cases, equally disturbing, which have gone less remarked.
In today’s Wall Street Journal, Rep. Peter Hoekstra discusses the impending release of Fitna, a short film highly critical of Islam, by Geert Wilders, a member of the Dutch parliament. Hoekstra:
Radical jihadists are prepared to use violence against individuals to stop them from exercising their free speech rights. In some countries, converting a Muslim to another faith is a crime punishable by death. While Muslim clerics are free to preach and proselytize in the West, some Muslim nations severely restrict or forbid other faiths to do so. In addition, moderate Muslims around the world have been deemed apostates and enemies by radical jihadists.
Radical jihadists believe representative government is un-Islamic, and urge Muslims who live in democracies not to exercise their right to vote. The reason is not hard to understand: When given a choice, most Muslims reject the extreme approach to Islam. This was recently demonstrated in Iraq’s Anbar Province, which went from an al-Qaeda stronghold to an area supporting the U.S.-led coalition. This happened because the populace came to intensely dislike the fanatical ways of the radicals, which included cutting off fingers of anyone caught smoking a cigarette, 4 p.m. curfews, beatings and beheadings. There also were forced marriages between foreign-born al Qaeda fighters and local Sunni women.
Read all of “Islam and Free Speech” here.
Via Slashdot, news comes today that Google’s next shareholders meeting will feature a vote on a shareholder resolution to protect free speech and combat censorship by intrusive governments.
According to the proxy statement, Proposal Number 5 would require the recognition of “minimum standards,” including, that “the company will use all legal means to resist demands for censorship. The company will only comply with such demands if required to do so through legally binding procedures,” and that “the company will not engage in pro-active censorship.”
Part of the basis cited for the proposal is the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declares that the “advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.”
One of the specific provisions of the declaration related to freedom of speech is Article 19: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
I’m curious to see how this resolution fares and how the directors, especially considering that Google co-founder Sergey Brin has said that the company’s cooperation with China “a net negative.” External considerations might also be at play, given the potential for legislation like the Global Online Freedom Act of 2007 to regulate the activities of companies like Google.
According to The Church Report, a new resource has been released which offers churches guidelines for keeping their activities and functions within the letter of the law. As non-profit organizations, churches are held to the same standard as registered charities and cannot engage in certain forms of public speech.
A report by The Rutherford Institute, “The Rights of Churches and Political Involvement” (PDF), examines in detail what the restrictions are for churches. There are two main areas: “first, no substantial part of the organization’s activities may consist of carrying on propaganda or otherwise attempting to influence legislation; and second, the organization may not participate in political campaigning in opposition to, or on behalf of, any candidate for public office.” For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to focus on the former case rather than the latter, since I take it for granted that churches shouldn’t be institutionally involved in campaigning for a specific candidate. For more on this second aspect of the law, see this post on the use of church directories by political parties, passed on by Joe Carter.
In its summary of the first type of restriction, the report states:
In short, only one reported court decision has found a religious organization in violation of section 501(c)(3) by engaging in “substantial” legislative activities. The IRS, however, refuses to abide by any precise standards, such as a percentage rule, to measure when “substantial” legislative activities have occurred. Hence, a church or religious organization seeking to acquire or maintain a tax-exempt status must be aware that there is always some risk that its attempt to influence legislation will prompt the IRS to pursue an audit and perhaps even revoke its tax-exempt status.
It goes on to say that “one risk adverse approach might be for a church to report pending legislation to church members, without proposing, supporting or opposing any legislation.”
The bottom line seems to be this: “Tax exemptions for churches and religious organizations are a privilege and not a constitutional right. In fact, to acquire and maintain this privilege, churches and religious organizations may have to forsake heretofore protected constitutional rights under the First Amendment.”
This means that if it is something that is germane to the proclamation of the gospel, a church must be willing to lose its tax-exempt status. The government could potentially use tax-free status as leverage to keep churches quiet about political activity. If the pastor and consistory feel that the issue is one of religious imperative, something like a status confessionis, the church must resist the temptation to impose restrictions on its own speech in the interest of maintaining a privileged position.
This clearly calls for prudence and wisdom on the part of the church leadership. I’m not suggesting that churches simply cast off their tax-exempt status on a whim. But when the issue comes down to one of keeping silent over clear moral evils or losing their special status, churches must choose the latter. Their ultimate allegiance must be to Christ and not Caesar.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the context of the enforcement of the Aryan clauses prohibiting pastors of Jewish heritage from ministry in the state churches, writes of the rare instance in which the church must “put a spoke in the wheel itself.” In his essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” he says, “Such action would be direct political action, and is only possible and desirable when the church sees the state fail in its function of creating law and order, i.e. when it sees the state unrestrainedly bring about too much or too little law and order. In both these cases it must see the existence of the state, and with it its own existence, threatened.”
He continues to argue that “there would be too little law if any group of subjects were deprived of their rights, too much where the state intervened in the character of the church and its proclamation, e.g. in the forced exclusion of baptised Jews from our Christian congregations or in the prohibition of our mission to the Jews. Here the Christian church would find itself in statu confessionis and here the state would be in the act of negating itself. A state which includes within itself a terrorised church has lost its most faithful servant.”
One such instance of the state making “too much law” and intervening “in the character of the church and its proclamation” would be the criminalization of certain types of speech as hateful or offensive.
The European press and the blogosphere have been full of stories over the last few days about the controversy started by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. There’s enough material out there that readers of the Acton blog don’t need a full run-down here. (See, for example, the Brussels Journal and Michelle Malkin.)
But since the issue concerns both religion and liberty, how can we not address it?
Yes, there is a right to free speech, which certainly includes the right to examine and criticize religious opinions and beliefs.
Christians are certainly used to having their beliefs examined publicly, if not caricatured and mocked, and there are several Christian groups who organize letter-writing campaigns and boycotts in response to those who cross the line of decency and respect.
But the reaction of some Muslim groups has been much more violent and is intensifying. The cartoons of Mohammed that are causing all the uproar do not seem to me to be all that shocking, but it’s clear that many Muslims are offended by any portayal of their prophet.
What’s missing from this debate is some kind of normative standards for civil discourse, something which has been missing from the Western media for some time. The right to free speech is not absolute; recall Lord Acton’s definition of the proper use of liberty, doing what one ought. And religious believers have a special obligation to treat others charitably, even and sometimes especially those who disagree with us.
Now, I am NOT arguing for any kind of government control of what is or is not decent or respectful, and I refuse to put these words in ironic “smart quotes” because I believe that decency and respect actually do exist. But a free and virtuous society definitely requires citizens and media who are able to regulate and restrain themselves. I personally find it hard to pick a side in this controversy. Sometimes the civil libertarians can be just as fanatical as the Islamists.