Blasphemy and Freedom of Speech

By Mike Appleton, Weekend Contributor

“The law knows no heresy, and is committed to the support of no dogma, the establishment of no sect.”

-Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679, 728 (1872)

In November of 1950 an Italian film directed by Roberto Rossellini entitled “L’Amore” opened in New York City with English subtitles. The film was an anthology of three stories, one of which, “The Miracle,” told the tale of an emotionally troubled peasant girl who is impregnated by a transient and believes that she is giving birth to Jesus. The film was voted best foreign language film by the New York Film Critics’ Circle. It was also condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency as “a sacrilegious and blasphemous mockery of Christian religious truth.” Francis Cardinal Spellman, the powerful archbishop of New York, insisted that the film demonstrated a need for stronger censorship laws. Within a few months the New York Board of Regents revoked the license to show the film, a decision upheld by the New York state courts under a law permitting the banning of any film “that may fairly be deemed sacrilegious to the adherents of any religious group.”

The subsequent legal battle is instructive in considering the reaction to the horrific attacks in France over the past two days.The film’s U.S. distributor contested the banning in a case that reached the Supreme Court. In Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495 (1952), the Court was asked to determine the constitutionality of the New York statute authorizing the banning of films deemed “sacrilegious.” The Court first concluded that motion pictures fall within the protection of the First and Fourteenth Amendments as a mode of expression. It then reversed the lower court decisions, holding that “the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them which is sufficient to justify prior restraint upon expression of those views. It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches or motion pictures.” 343 U.S. at 505.

The Wilson decision teaches us two important lessons. First, it reminds us that freedom of speech is grounded in freedom of thought, the inalienable right to entertain any idea and to attempt to persuade others of its veracity. Second, it reiterates the notion that a nation committed to religious pluralism cannot exempt religious doctrine from criticism, or even ridicule. That truth has become increasingly battered in a world of shrinking dimensions and increasing cultural confrontation. No better, or more appalling, examples of the assault on free speech by religious ideologues in the wake of the French crime spree can be found than those provided by Anjem Choudary and Bill Donahue.

Mr. Choudary is an English lawyer and radical Islamist who is reported to have advocated, among other things, the assassination of the Pope. His views are blunt and unflinching. “Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression . . . the potential consequences of insulting the Messenger Muhammad are known to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It is time that the sanctity of a Prophet revered by up to one-quarter of the world’s population was protected.” Bill Donahue, who fancies himself a sort of censor deputatus on all opinions touching upon Catholicism, believes that the murder of Stephen Charbonnier, the publisher and editor of  Charlie Hebdo, was to be expected. According to Mr. Donahue, “It is too bad that he didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death.”

Mr. Choudary and Mr. Donahue represent flip sides of the same fundamentalist coin, and they are both wrong. The suggestion that critical speech, regardless of its vehemence, can merit a violent response is actually a rejection of a foundational principle for any cohesive society predicated upon diversity. It is for that very reason that efforts to criminalize speech deemed violative of religious doctrine, or political orthodoxy or social convention, is threatening and wrongheaded. No idea is deserving of respect beyond that which it can command by virtue of its tendency to compel conviction. No idea requires the protection of the law beyond the unreserved right to its expression.

Sources:  Anjem Choudary, “People Know the Consequences,” USA Today (Jan. 8, 2015); “After Charlie Hebdo Attacks, U.S. Catholic group says cartoonists ‘provoked’ slaughter,” Washington Post (Jan. 7, 2015); Bill Donahue, “Muslims Are Right To Be Angry,” Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights (Jan. 7, 2015); “Anjem Choudary: Profile,” The Telegraph (Jan. 4, 2010).

The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays of art are solely their decision and responsibility.


135 thoughts on “Blasphemy and Freedom of Speech”

  1. Happy, I saw a fairly long post from Professor Turley, perhaps in a different case, that many removals had occurred without individual mention. Do you think he reads all this or has staff on the site, who may bring certain comments to his attention? I have trouble keeping up and often skip lots of responses.

    I haven’t been here long enough to notice people leaving. Most are still here since I came on. Annie/Inga has been less active.

    1. No Sandy – he mentions them individually. I don’t know how long you have been here. I have only been here since June. Inga/Annie is here still and quieter because all of the others are not here any more. He would say stuff like Nick you had 5 posts deleted because of the civility rule. Paul you had 5 posts deleted because of the civility rule. It doesn’t matter. They are gone. Whether or not they were sock puppets is hard to determine. lol

  2. Free Speech as well as Freedom itself comes with citizen responsibility.

    Take a look at Hollywood and the “R” rated movies they produce. Many of these movies would have been rated “X” or Condemned in the 1950’s & ’60’s. These movies have played a significant role in corrupting the minds of our youth and most vulnerable–those unable to separate fiction from reality. However, it’s free speech, although I believe Hollywood has a responsibility to censor itself and realize the moral damage it does to our citizen in our country.

    Charlie Hebdo made a satirical smear illustration that sent radicals over the edge. These cartoonist played a vital role in their own destruction. On the other hand, because of this massacre, other terrorist are being flushed out–something France and Europe as a whole should have done earlier and should be doing constantly when they’re given a lead.

    1. But it’s okay to show any type of violence or deviant character degradation. Who makes these rules anyway?

      If you don’t want to watch these things or your children. You control it — NOT THE STATE — that is the point

  3. Paul C …. in the Pentagon/DoD world it is a continuing struggle for them to maintain a 1:10 ration of supervision to functional folks. The latest machination to achieve that, barely and not across the board) was to reclassify previous 1st line supervisors as “leads”, removing the term “supervisory” from their job descriptions (which impacts future promotion as well). Then they did the same thing to 2nd level supervision, reclassifying them as “liaisons” and also removing “supervisory” from position descriptions. During all this shell gaming, the numbers of flag ranks nearly quadrupled. I wonder just when the powers that be will figure out that supervisory to functional ratios can’t remain stable by this method. When they design a RIF they always make it even worse. The funny part is that most of the flag ranks can’t do much work of their own now, and rely (demand it of…) upon functional personnel to do it for them and send it up in a nice PowerPoint deck. It is funny how many more manually generated reports are required today than even a decade ago. Consumption of fuels measurement is one of the the most flagrant (idiotic)…since all fuels today for DoD are bought with Visa cards of one type or another, there are databases that contain all the information, right down to the specific vehicle or building…but the field personnel are still required to keep manual logs and summarize them for the elites….in PowerPointless of course with links, or graphics embedded, to manually generated Excel spreadsheets. Aggghhhhh.

    The primary function of many flag ranks will soon to be just to read the graphic equivalent of Twitter and then discuss it in august sessions where everyone tries to sound serious, even though essentially clueless. Recently my old office had a week long “inspection” of facilities…by a guy who cold not even read a blueprint, and proved it in his summary of the visit.

  4. Sandi … my experience with military “RIF’s” (reductions in force) is that they tend to dismiss those with fighting experience or ordnance experience and keep the administrators.

    1. Aridog – it is not just the military that does that. A couple local school districts failed to have bond elections pass so they are having RIFs. Oddly, no administrators are on the chopping block.

  5. Issac… … I’ve re-red this thread and I’ve re-watched the videos of the greeting and hug/cheek kissing done in Paris…and I’ve finally noticed what you said about it and looking others in the eye. Seemed like in most of those instances, the parties did first embrace at the elbows, looking in to each others’ eyes, before the cheek smooching. Never ceases to amaze me how even in my dotage I am still learning things…so thanks for making it a point of our exchange.

    I won’t change my behavior & arm’s length thing for adults, but I will now recognize the customs of others as every bit as legitimate as mine. Other than with children, always an exception to me, that I now realize I hadn’t included in my diatribe, I’m not inclined to hug or embrace any adult closely other than under the male/female conditions I cited earlier. A child deserves every embrace they get, and it can change their lives in my experience. How do you push away a 5 year old from down the block who just up and grabs you in a hug? They’re saying something non-verbally and you’d best realize it. Or don’t complain when some kids go wild.

    In short, Issac, you made me think and re-think my outlook. Thanks.

  6. A couple of our female friends are perpetual rescuers, one in particular. If I get a call from one named Bxxxx at an odd hour I know it is to help with another rescue she’s made. Once her dog passed away she rescues virtually anything that wanders in to her large over one acre yard near a semi-wild drainage creek. Her husband assists her and doesn’t complain….don’t blame him because she’s both a beautiful woman and a great friend to all. At present she has ground hogs living under her deck, a raccoon or two, about 20 squirrels, various types, residing in the yard, plus ducks, geese, and you name it, even a skunk now and then, all fed in winter when food is scarce, with heated water bowls, and these days one very feral very young male cat living in her garage in a large dog crate, with blankets, that I loaned her, and with electric heaters all around. She already has 3 cats living in the house, all rescues. The latest cat spends most of the time, when a human enters the garage, up in the rafters, but is v-e-r-y slowly beginning to socialize. He doesn’t leave when the doors are open….and Bxxxxx leaves a door open if he’s wandered off for a stroll, because he always comes back. One time she had me trying to handle, literally, baby ground hogs (not recommended…they have sharp claws and bite) that we finally “herded” with straw brooms. She’s added one of those cat climbing things covered with carpet to give the feral boy something else to clamber up. Many years ago she called me at my office in the federal building to come help with a dog she’d taken in to her car on her way to work nearby (as natural for her as walking)….hence if I get a call from Bxxxxx at an unusual time I know what it is going to be about. Judi thinks it is both endearing and hilarious. I’ve suggested that too much aid to truly wild animals might not be productive, but lately I don’t win those discussions. Maybe when the coyotes finally arrive she’ll re-think it all. Meantime I’ll always help her when asked…unless one day she decides to civilize a Grizzly Bear or something….fortunately there are none of those near here.

    And yes, this is in Detroit. We have several forested drainage rivers and creeks leading in and out of the city, plus the several railroad rights of way, which are virtually freeways for wildlife and feral life.

  7. HappyPappies …. I’ve only rescued one dog off the streets that couldn’t be saved in the end, a white German Shepherd just entirely too defensive and impossible to handle without a stick & loop device used by animal control personnel. A friend and I gave her a chance to live in a home, with other dogs, but it just did not work and we had to take her to the local Detroit shelter. It was among my saddest days.

    1. Aridog – you can only do what you can do. You can’t sacrifice your well being for some poor thing beyond help. 🙁

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