May 22, 2007

Free Speech and Religion: Difficult Questions

Bendetson Hall is the office of under...
Bendetson Hall is the office of undergraduate admissions at Tufts University. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We Americans value our freedom of speech, but many of us feel uneasy about allowing harassment, hate speech, or intimidation. Thus, most of us support some sort of limits on free speech. Even those who do not will recognize that the law already limits free speech in many ways. For example, verbal threats of bodily harm count as simple assault in the criminal code of many states. Legislatures and courts continue to struggle over finding an appropriate balance, often managing to please no one. Fitting religion in this mix is especially problematic and raises a number of disturbing questions.

I have little trouble with most anti-discrimination laws, including those that list religion alongside variables such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age, etc. An atheist employer should not legally be able to fire a Christian employee solely on the basis of that person's religion. To do so would be discrimination. Of course, I'd expect this applies to Christian employers firing atheists, Muslims, etc.

But something like employment discrimination tends to be simpler than other speech issues. Should it be against the law to criticize someone on the basis of their ethnicity, national origin, or gender? What about their religion? And what about criticizing a religion in general without making reference to specific persons? Should The God Delusion be banned on the grounds that it is critical of Christianity and Islam?

Before you dismiss such questions as absurd, consider this post from Austin Cline (update: link no longer active) which describes how the Tufts University student newspaper was told by the Tufts University Committee on Student Life that they could not run materials critical of Islam because such materials violated the university prohibition of "harassment or discrimination against individuals on the basis of race, religion, gender identity/expression, ethnic or national origin, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age, or genetics."

Tufts appears to equate criticism of a religion with "harassment or discrimination." They claim that their policy is based on "community standards." But how can it be either when the criticism does not focus on any particularly individuals? Are we now giving people a new right - the right not to be exposed to criticism of a religion in which they might believe? To what else might this right extend? If I say that I do not like Italian food, am I guilty of harassing or discriminating against Italians?

I understand that nobody likes to have something they like criticized, but aren't we going too far by prohibiting such criticism? It seems like we should be able to distinguish between depriving someone of various opportunities or rights on the basis of religion (i.e., discrimination) and criticism. If we cannot manage to do this, I fear that free speech will become a causality of political correctness.

Then what do we do about hate speech and the like? I think we have to allow it. When someone engages in this sort of speech outside any official capacity, I'm not sure we have any good choices besides allowing it. Virtually anything someone says is going to offend someone. One of the worst mistakes the PC crowd has made is propagating the idea that people have the right not to be offended. I do not like hearing racist, homophobic, sexist or anti-atheist speech, but I think I have to accept that I will continue to hear it.

For more on this topic, see Stardust Musings and Thoughts for the Freethinker.