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. Sandi…thanks for reminding me. Those days on and after 9/11 were very busy and required focus on the DoD messages, so I obviously did miss the unity of nations you cite. Our first order of business was to get our field mobile operations centers to NYC, and set one up as the unified communication center for FDNY. Then on 21 Sep we had a lunatic shoot and kill a Federal Police Officer dead (he was a neighbor and friend of mine) in the lobby of our building, which made the fussing all the more frantic.

    Thanks again for the reminder.

    1. Aridog, as all the things you mentioned were done after 9/11, there were millions of other things being done. Looking back things began being back to normal, except airports.

      I have a suggestion about airports. I think passengers and luggage should be checked in at a completely different location. Then bused to the airport. We had this done in France once and it was quite orderly. Apparently they had more planes then places to put them. The luggage was bused to the plane, we could see it. Then two stairways were set up and everyone went to the stairway told, it went quite smoothly. I was traveling with a friend in a wheelchair and we were put on by an elevator type thing. It was a long walk from the back of the plane to 1st with curious eyes on the wheelchair and buzzing about were we famous or something.

      As I watch the hullabaloo in Europe (Kerry with Taylor OMG) I think about how difficult it was for Bush to get the world involved. Countries probably thought they weren’t attacked and wouldn’t be if they stayed out of it. Now they see how wrong they were. And, quite frankly, they can’t do it without us. And Obama isn’t going to do anything. Hopefully he will agree to give technical information, satellite views, etc., as support, but time to pay the piper.

      Their ground forces should be with the Kurds. And in Iraq pushing ISIS back. Jordan should be given help. So should Israel, which should be us. Lebanon will be used by radicals.This is like a spread out holcaust, but just as horrible. NATO should help Ukraine. And Poland should get what they need to keep their borders secure. We are retiring people from our military who have loads of experience and could provide their expertise. If your country hasn’t been attacked, it will.

      No country is going to be free of these radicals unless the world rids us of them. We’ve had a lazy six years, time to get going!

  2. Happy, please tell me you found homes for those puppies.

    Ours is a toy poodle, black with a white goatee, and she runs the place. Saw a couple of videos people had made to see what their dogs did when they left. Well, one howled and howled all day long. The other cried all day. I don’t want to video ours, because if it’s as terrible as those I could never leave my home.

    You know, that might just be a cure. Everybody should be given a sweet 8-week old puppy. Then you learn what love is and maybe get rid of that hate!

    1. Sandy – thank you for your concern. Yes, I always find homes. Always. Then I follow them around and sometimes have to re rescue them because I don’t trust people. Once in a great while something will slip through my fingers and someone else will rescue the puppy and call me and rag me out and make me feel so big. But at least the puppy has a home. Dogs are a cure because they are nothing but love. They are spoiled rotten but they are just pure love. 🙂

      Ari 🙂 🙂 🙂

      1. Beheading sent me over the edge! Happy, dogs are great. They’re being trained and given to vets, helps them. So do cats. A cat lying on your stomach while you read purring is a wonderful feeling.

        We stick to toy poodles. From breeders. Not many toy poodles in rescue. And my husband is a one-at-a-time guy.

        1. Sandy – Dogs are like potato chips – you can’t have just one. 😉 Especially when you are by yourself. I was going through some of the older posts looking for information in July – October and it seems we are missing some people and there is not as much passive aggressive rude behavior going on here. I also noticed in thinking about this JT has not been on here in quite some time removing posts for the civility rule. 😉

  3. Aridog, getting together in Europe is a short flight. Also, we didn’t allow flights in for three days. Queen Elizabeth stood in front of her castle with her band playing our national anthem. There were thousands or flowers, etc., at American Embassies. After three days the first was Ireoand (don’t remember his name) then Tony Blair (several times).

    France increased their bombings over ISIS today, a good sign they’re beginning to understand.

  4. HappyPappies…you are forever endeared to me for calling me “precious”…I don’t think anyone anywhere has ever called me that. Cranky as I am at times, its a rare thing indeed when someone sees past all that. Our common affection for dogs is also a bond of sorts, large or small, dogs are critters that tend to civilize us…in fact they appear at times to be able to read our minds. I’d add horses to that, as well as the occasional cat, although our current one is purely a cat’s cat…sweet moments but with more complaints that a 13 year old kid.

  5. It was right after I had to put my husband back into a Nursing home and my Father had just passed away from a stroke so I wasn’t at my best you know. I had just had my car repossessed and things weren’t so good.

  6. HappiePappies…I understand your stories and wish they are not true, but I am sure they are true. That said, no one, anywhere, ever runs me out of anywhere. Period.

    Banging on my door and barging in would be gross mistake by anyone, thug or police…fortunately, our police, here in my town, would not do that. I’d receive a notice of a warrant before any confrontation. I could then respond like a civilized human. None-the-less I do not run from the thugs, and they are unlikely to come to my door, or my neighbors’ doors, in the first place. This is not a place anyone should decide to go all “gangsta” in the first place. Me and my neighbors can be quite ugly if provoked. It has happened in the past and would again. All we want is a peaceful place for our dogs, our kids, and our families per se…and we’ll defend that ideal. Until now we’ve not had to do so violently, at least not often. But we would. Christian or Muslim is not a consideration…civil peace is the only one.

    1. Aridog – He scared me and I didn’t have your experience and he barged in and pushed me aside. It was my dogs they were after you see. I had 8 dogs and they didn’t like that. I was trying to sell them from previous move and couldn’t do it fast enough. They are so little though tiny. And sweet.

  7. Aridog, at least your gun nut who voted Republican is a gentleman.,we are, generally, very nice people.

  8. Brian, I think France has figured out that commerce in their country must be protected. And they are required to protect embassies. Yes, there is a war. It’s a religious war with extremists that do not allow cartoons about the prophet. When moved to the Kosher market, it became an attack on Jews, which has been going on for 70+ years. France has recognized the idea of welcomed immigrants melding into French society is not working. Nor in Britain, Germany, Holland, and others. What to do? Can you unimmigrate because they didn’t meld? If you don’t remove them all, you have the problem of them becoming radicalized via the Internet. Can they “big brother” the Internet? Probably. The people that immigrated to France in the beginning were escaping the extremist religions, is it fair to them? I love France. I’d go every year, but for the problems they’ve had. Last time we were there, we saw “make work” jobs, probably for money from the government, except the jobs weren’t getting done. The taxes are high and Jews are leaving to live in Israel. They feel safer there. Safer?

  9. HappyPappies said …

    … I live anywhere where they tolerate me. lol

    Though I realize you are saying that tongue in cheek, it does bear some truth none-the-less. It might actually have applied to Judi & I where we live, even though she’s lived no where else in her 58 years as a primary resident, while I have lived in many places….here for 30+ years only one of those places. When I first moved here, I suspect I was “tolerated”. I got endless questions from neighbors about why I did so and when I planned to sell and move elsewhere. It took over a year to convince them I live here because I like it here, like the people here, and and recognize their contributions to literally re-building an old neighborhood. Now I am greeted warmly, even by the grumpy ones. If you fail to listen to and learn what new folks think you have scant chance of influencing them at all.

    Same thing when I lived in Korea for 2.5+ years…a xenophobic place if there ever was one. Again took about a year to be truly accepted, witnessed on the first day I found I could walk in to a room and none of the Koreans there bothered to look up or comment in whispers. Learning the language in a very rudimentary way (fluency about that of an 8 year old kid who took the short bus to school) but enough to show I meant what I said about liking the place. It was a key to working with ROK Marines up near the Northern Limit Line…they seemed to be amused that I would frequently laugh at myself when I made some foible in word or even deed. And that I would ask a question, and then listen before saying much on my own…e.g., their ideas counted with me. The result was some deep conversations about values in the west versus the east, which they felt comfortable participating in with me. The seemed to honor the fact I knew I was in their country and tried hard to remain an exemplary American and assimilate to a degree in their culture anyway. Many times I was actually honored in simple ways by people who otherwise would never think to do so to an outsider, especially a Mi-Guk soldier (I lived “off post” on the local economy in a rural area) living among the Han-Guk.

    I’ve traveled the American countryside fairly widely coast to coast. I have always found pleasure in the diversity. We truly are a coat of many fabrics so to speak, which I believe is our strength. I simply try to express that where ever I am on a given day. If I ever to travel again to Asia it would be to Korea first, perhaps only. Not quite ready for re-visiting Vietnam … it is still communist and alien to me from that standpoint, although I’ve gotten along well with communists in the USA back in the 60’s….but none of those were terrorists and taught in colleges before the days of rampant PC. My continuing contact (via an email “rat line” so to speak) with prior South Vietnamese military and one American who was there for 6 years pre-1975, and several who were there for a tour or two, influences me to avoid the place….for now. The 6 year vet has returned to Vietnam, however, and his photos and stories imply I should consider it…but I’d only go with him…he has far more experience there than I do. Last trip of his, 2 months, was spent primarily in what once was North Vietnam and he saw places of great beauty that none of the rest of us have seen to this day. It is a wee itch in the very back of my mind.

    Far stronger impulse is to visit rural South Korea again where I spent many days in places where even the farmers were anxious to talk to me and tell me their stories. The mountain folk were the most endearing (maybe because they ate more potatoes and wheat than rice? … those of Irish descent get it) …in the 60’s they were hilariously amused by our ideas of “indoor plumbing” if you will … the idea of how sanitary plumbing works baffled them, not for the technology, but merely for the idea of soiling anything in the same walls within you lived and cooked. The more I spoke of it the louder they cracked up laughing. Great folks and if you had a shred of humility they’d invite you in to their homes to stay a bit. Curiosity, both ways, seems to be the grist of relationships otherwise improbable.

    1. Aridog – You are Precious – I was serious – lololol – if they don’t tolerate you, they run you out, re – my St. Ann stories of Police harassment. Banging on door and barging in and condemning house for spiderwebs and nail polish on bathroom floor I hadn’t got up yet……

  10. Before someone asks…I live where I do not because I “tolerate” neighbors who are different from me, but because I accept them as equal to me and the core of a community they in fact saved from ghetto status.

    Now idiots who tailgate me at 80+ mph are another mater…those I “tolerate”, but occasionally step on my brake pedal without lifting my foot off the gas pedal…just to see the panicked “OMG looks” on their faces in my rear view mirror. There are those who say I am one sick puppy… 🙂

    1. @Aridog – I love it when you talk dirty like that 😉 And I live anywhere where they tolerate me. lol

  11. F’ing Autocorrect wrote smocking instead of smooching. The little genius gremlin inside my PC takes a list of alternatives and picks one for you by coin tossing I suspect.

  12. Issac…first, the term is spelled “de rigueur” and most dictionaries cite it as pertaining to fashion, etiquette, or custom ….note the terms etiquette & custom. The hugging with cheek smocking is as much about etiquette & custom as any haberdashery design. Same for hand shaking, or as I said, in my locale, tapping one’s own shoulder when greeting a woman you do not well. That said, you and I prefer different etiquettes in greeting. Neither is wrong.

    My preference in interpersonal contact is not inside an arms length in all directions. Only exception is for females I have made horizontal whoopee with on occasion. No, I do not do well in crowded trains or other transport…and today airlines are the worst. Airborne cattle cars outside of first class. I have to tolerate it, of course, but there certainly have been times I’d wish the person next to me or behind me would be sucked out of the window and be gone. My definition of “tolerance” (said a few times here on other threads) is the state of mind you must portend while you look for a big enough rock to kill the other guy.

  13. PaulS, Politics makes strangle bedfellows. I’m more of a freak than yourself. I’m not down w/ much of Crumb’s politics. but I abide his hairy ass cartoon,

    1. Nick – when you watch the documentary on R. Crumb, you wonder about his sexual interests and mental health.

    1. Nick – If you ever say the documentary on R. Crumb you would not take anything he said seriously.

  14. As a show of solidarity to the Charlie crew, T Crumb just penned a cartoon, “The Hairy Ass of Mohhamid” He has the courage to draw himself holding a drawing of Mohammid’s[spelled incorrectly as an added ball bust] hairy ass. We need MUCH more of this.

  15. Airdog

    The value is in the intent, sometimes the traditions. As long as we are admitting stuff, I like the hugs and pecks, the tradition, and the meaning behind it all. It’s a first move in the right direction. De rigour refers more to dress code or other transient stuff, not to tradition based on a deeper meaning than wearing a tie in some situations. Also, an event such as this, with people such as these, practiced in the art of not exhibiting emotion, I doubt that there would be much emotion or smooching. I do like to see people such as these embracing and pecking rather than just showing up. To each his/her own.

  16. Brian,

    IANAL either.

    Are you suggesting a sovereign nation and its citizens have a responsibility to change their way of life to accommodate the various cultures around the world? If extremists of any stripe threaten violence, for any reason, should we then alienate our own freedoms to align ourselves with them? Imagine for a moment if our own government attempted to do this to our citizens; would you accept it? What good would our constitution and Bill of Rights be if we allowed ourselves to be subjugated by a foreign entity instead?

  17. Jill,
    I wasn’t offended so no apology was necessary. Maybe RTC was playing the role of extremist and demonstrating how easily they can manipulate an entire culture. 😉

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