January 20, 2010

In Questions of Free Speech, Does Reality Matter?

Everybody Draw Mohammed Day - Mohammed by Hlkolaya
Everybody Draw Mohammed Day - Mohammed by Hlkolaya (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Christian extremists and conservatives are fond of whining about free speech whenever anyone suggests that they avoid blatant intolerance. However, free speech is a complex subject with few easy answers. My question for this post is whether external reality should play any role in evaluating claims of intolerance and free speech or whether it is largely irrelevant.

The Right to Freely Express Intolerance and Bigotry

Ed Brayton (Dispatches From the Culture Wars) recently brought it to my attention that the ACLU is defending the right of Christian students in Florida to wear t-shirts to school not only promoting their church and their particular bible but also disparaging Islam. In fact, the shirts have a Christian bible quote on the front and say "Islam is of the devil" on the back. No ambiguity there.

According to the ACLU, they filed a lawsuit in federal court not because they agree with the message on the shirts but because they view this as a free speech issue. Brayton is right - this is interesting stuff.
Attorneys for the ACLU said at issue is whether school officials may lawfully permit what they consider to be "positive" messages about religion, faith or other matters while prohibiting what they consider to be "negative" messages about those same matters.
I am not at all surprised that a public school would prohibit students from wearing clothing containing messages blatantly attacking any group. I would expect that such shirts would be disruptive to the learning environment, and that would be sufficient for the school to seek their removal.

Anticipating that his readers might disagree with the ACLU's position in this case, Brayton suggests we consider the following:
If you think the ACLU is wrong on this, ask yourself how you would feel if the t-shirts instead said "Atheism is great. I stand in reason with the American Humanist Association" on the front and "Religion is stupid" or "Christianity is nonsense" on the back.
Good point. At least, he makes a good point if we agree that external reality has no bearing on these sorts of cases.

Does Reality Matter?

The thing that bothers me most about the message "Islam is of the devil" is that it is false. There is no devil, so the statement is factually false. If the shirts instead said, "Islam is evil" or "Islam is stupid," these would be opinions, and we might need to argue about whether such statements were appropriate in a public school. But if the shirts said "Islam is dangerous," this would be a fact. Does that matter?

When Brayton asks us to consider "Religion is stupid," we're dealing with opinion, but "Christianity is nonsense" is certainly a factual statement. Does that matter?

Yes, I'm trying to make a point here. The point is simply that I am fed up with the wholesale dismissal of reality from discussions like this. We do truth no favors by pretending that Christianity, Islam, and atheism are equal in veracity. When preserving feelings is given priority over acknowledging reality, we all lose.

For the Record

I think the ACLU is wrong on this one because we are dealing with an educational setting in which the statement is likely to be disruptive to the learning process. That the statement in this case also happens to be factually incorrect makes it less defensible. For the record, I would expect the school to prohibit blatantly anti-Christian statements because, while they might be factually correct, they would be similarly disruptive. Public high schools exist for learning, not for making religious or political statements.