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.