The distinction between speech and action matters. Shouting fire in a crowded theatre endangers people’s safety and so is not just speech but also an “action” that can rightfully be outlawed. In contrast, showing contempt by burning the US flag or a copy of the Quran is “speech” and so should not be outlawed. The act of burning an item of your own property is lawful, and the added contemptuous attitude amounts to speech. This is highlighted by the fact that the method of disposal of old flags recommended by the US military is … burning them, though respectfully. Likewise some Islamic authorities recommend burning as the method of disposal of old copies of the Quran that are no longer fit for reading.
Those in favour of free speech generally hold that any speech that stops short of incitement to violence, or otherwise putting people in direct physical danger, should be lawful and accepted. Those against free speech think otherwise. But they don’t want to admit to being against free speech; few people do. So they label those in favour of free speech as “free speech absolutists”, and begin their arguments with: “I am fully in favour of free speech, but …”. From there they muddy the water by trying to negate the distinction between speech and action. Continue reading
Baroness O’Neill, chair of the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, has recently given a speech, hosted by the Theos think tank, on freedom of expression and religion of religion. There is much that is good in the speech. In particular I agree wholeheartedly with her view that:
There is no way of securing freedom of expression if we also maintain that there is a right not to be offended. Speech acts that incite hatred, or that intimidate, or that defraud, or that abuse, can be regulated without putting freedom of expression at the mercy of others. But if there were a right not to be offended, this would put everyone’s freedom of expression at the mercy of others.
Baroness O’Neill counsels:
What then should one do if one hears, reads or sees something that one considers offensive, perhaps deeply offensive? The basic thing is to remember is that unless the offending speech act was wrong in some further way (e.g. it was defamatory, or incited hatred, or was fraudulent), no right has been violated, and no remedy of the sort that respect for rights requires is needed.
But, there is one major area where I want to argue that Baroness O’Neil is misguided. And this is the fundamental matter of what we mean by “freedom of religion”. The Baroness says that: Continue reading
In the heightened tension of multiple shootings related to religion and free-speech there is sometimes a tendency to claim that vocal atheists can be just as “extreme” as the Islamists. In Craig Hicks, murderer of three innocent people who were Muslims, perhaps there is the proof?
The Guardian certainly thinks so. In an editorial published yesterday, The Guardian says that the Chapel Hill shooting was an “act of terrorism” and that Hicks’s target was “freedom itself”, in this case the freedom to be a Muslim.
We should and do unreservedly condemn the murders of Deah Barakat, of Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and of Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, the youngest only 19. If the act was in any way related to the atheistic views of Craig Hicks then we unreservedly condemn it. If the motive was unrelated to religion we again condemn it.
The Guardian thinks it knows Craig Hicks’s motives, but does it? Hicks has been described as “an angry, confrontational man who constantly harangued residents about where they parked their car and the noise level at the condominium complex where they lived”. Hicks was also an advocate of the right to carry guns, which on occasion he brandished to neighbours.
The families of those murdered regard this as a hate crime, directed at the victims because they were Muslim. They may be right. Hicks’s wife, though, has denied that the motive was religious. Mental health issues have been suggested. Many people are gunned down in gun-toting America each year. The fact that the victims were religious is not sufficient for concluding that the motive was religious. Continue reading
As I write this thousands of Muslims are marching through London to “Defend the Honour of the Holy Prophet” and denounce the “insulting depictions of our Holy Prophet” by Charlie Hebdo.
They have every right to do so, of course. They have every right to voice their views, even though they would deny that right to others, if they could. It is also entirely within their rights to regard this issue as a more urgent reason for taking to the streets than, for example, the activities of ISIS. Does burning people to death, beheading children, and selling girls as sex slaves — when done in the name of Islam by the Islamic State — not demean the honour of the Prophet of Islam?
The media are quick to label ISIS and their fellow Jihadi Islamists as extremists, which they certainly are. But the implication is that mainstream Islam is moderate. Let’s consider some basic principles of any “moderate” worldview in the West nowadays. Continue reading
I am the sort of person who would draw a Mohammed cartoon, if I could draw, which I can’t, and if I was good at satirical cartoons, which I’m not. Yes, we do understand that you find cartoons depicting Muhammed offensive. We understand that you value the reputation of Muhammed more than that of your own family, and that Western cartoons about your prophet are, to you, utterly disrespectful and blasphemous. We are not drawing cartoons just for the sake of being insulting, nor because we hate you. We draw cartoons because we regard doing so as important for a free society.
Over human history many ideologies have been totalitarian. The Christian religion used to burn people at the stake for heresy. The Soviet Communists sent people to the Gulag for any dissent from communist ideology. The Nazis murdered millions to further their fascist ideology.
All totalitarian regimes control what people can say, and in particular they repress any questioning of themselves and their control of society. The right to question authority is among the most fundamental rights in a free society. Even the right to vote is predicated on the right to discuss and argue about the merits and demerits of the government. Where people cannot question their rulers, society is not free. And that means, overwhelmingly, that economic prosperity is lower, technological advance is hampered, cultural flourishing is restricted, and quality of life is lower. Across the world these things correlate with political freedom and thus with freedom of speech.
The Islamic world, sadly, is different. Political freedom is not accepted. Rather, the greatest good is held to be unquestioning acceptance of Islam. Where Islam dominates, Islam is totalitarian, controlling what people can do and say. Continue reading
This was written for Scientia Salon, and partially repeats some of my previous posts.
In the all-time lists of Good Ideas the principle of religious freedom ranks high, preventing much strife and war and thus being responsible for saving more lives than penicillin and vaccination combined. 
“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”, wrote Thomas Jefferson, who rated his Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom as his finest accomplishment. 
Yet, despite the fact that the principle of religious freedom is now universally accepted in the civilised world,  there is much less agreement on how to interpret it. Indeed, my thesis here is that the principle is widely misunderstood.
In the United States, the Supreme Court tells us, corporations have the status of “people” and thus have attendant constitutional rights including freedom of religion. That allows corporations to decline to participate in aspects of Obamacare if it considers that doing so would be against the corporation’s religious beliefs.
This landmark “Hobby Lobby” ruling followed predictable lines, with five Catholic judges out-voting the Court’s four moderates. Much of the commentary has focused on the doctrine of awarding personhood to corporations. An equally important issue, however, is the role of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, whose effects are seen for the first time.
That Act would have been better named the Religious Privilege Establishment Act. It requires that the:
“Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability”, with allowed exceptions only where the burden “furthers a compelling governmental interest”, and in addition “is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest”.
This privileges the religious since it grants greater import and status to a religious motivation for doing or not doing something than to a secular motivation for the same thing. Through this promotion of religious belief it is a law “respecting an establishment of religion” and thus it violates the First Amendment. Continue reading