Perils of a Polish Pop Princess

The deadly consequences of blasphemous speech have been the focus of some great writing on militant Islam and its intolerance of free thought. While I wish to take nothing away from these reports, I would urge GetReligion readers not to forget that censorship under the guise of hate speech laws is  alive and well at home. While the consequences of insulting religion in America or Europe are nothing as to what might happen to a blasphemer in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, the mindset that animates intolerance in the Middle East is not absent from the West. Last week a Warsaw appeals court upheld a lower court decision finding that Poland's premier pop star had violated the country's hate-speech laws by disparaging the Bible.

The Polish court's ruling that singer and reality TV star Doda will have to pay a 5,000 Zloty fine (approximately $1500) for offending religious sensibilities is an example of this phenomena. However, the Polish press has done a great job in questioning the wisdom of laws that privilege the sensibilities of a politically well-connected constituency.

Who is Doda? According to a 2008 CNN  story entitled "Famous Poles through the ages" she is Poland's Britney Spears.

Doda or Doda Elektroda or "the Polish Britney Spears" ... was born in Ciechanow [in 1984], and is one of the most famous and successful pop singers in Poland.

Doda started her career at the age of 14 and became popular after her participation in a reality TV show "Bar." In 2000, at the age of 16, [Doda] became the vocalist of the Polish rock band Virgin.

In December 2005 and October 2007, she posed nude for the Polish edition of Playboy Magazine. She also posed for CKM Magazine several times.

Doda received a Superjedynka award on National Festival of Polish Song in Opole in 2006.

In 2007, she left her record company, Virgin, to begin a solo career. Her first solo album was released in 2007 and was certified as gold on the day before its official release. In 2008, her album "Diamond Bitch" went double platinum after 60,000 copies of the album had been sold.

Her career has continued on its upward trajectory and she remains Poland's most popular pop artist. And like Britney Spears, the tabloids love her -- and she loves them. Her latest rendezvous with fame came with comments  she made in a 2009 interview disparaging beliefs in the inerrancy and historicity of the Bible.

The website for Radio Poland reported that:

Dorota Rabczewska, known to the public as Doda, was initially sentenced in January this year, having claimed in an interview that the Bible “was written by someone who was hammered on wine and who'd been smoking herbs.”

The Warsaw District Court rejected her appeal on Monday, upholding the original sentence.

Miss Rabczewska had been brought to court owing to complaints filed by Ryszard Nowak, chairman of the privately run Nationwide Defence Committee Against Sects, and Stanislaw Kogut, a senator for the conservative Law and Justice party.

In her original defence, the singer had claimed that she had not intended to offend anyone, and that the cited herbs “were certainly therapeutic ones” and the alcohol in question “sacramental wine.”

... At present, the Democratic Left Alliance party is working on a draft bill that will cut the maximum penalty for insulting religious feelings from two years imprisonment to six months.

Meanwhile, Rabczewska may not appeal to Poland's Supreme Court, but her lawyer is considering an extraordinary appeal to Poland's Omsbudsman on Civil Rights. An appeal to European Court of Human Rights could also be pursued.

Liberal and conservative newspapers in Poland have come out in favor of Doda's right to speak her mind -- even if what she has to say is offensive (or foolish).

Writing in the liberal Warsaw daily Gazeta Wyborcza on 20 June 2012, Wojciech Maziarski said:

Poland is in the grips of a sort of religious censorship. Doda's statements offended and outraged many people. They sparked a scandal and provoked much protest. But it was precisely to protect such statements that democratic constitutional states created the right to freedom of opinion. Civil rights aren't needed to protect uncontroversial opinions that meet with no disapproval. You don't need to help those who swim with the current and fully agree with the majority opinion. Civil rights are meant as a guarantee for the very people who swim against the current and who offend their fellow citizens. Regardless of whether they're right or not.

The conservative news site Wprost also objected to the criminalization of unpopular speech. Journalist Maciej Kawinski stated:

Every child knows the dinosaurs existed, and we have irrefutable proof that they did. The Bible, by contrast, contains both academically proven facts and myths better suited to a fantasy film than a historical chronicle. As a result I have no problem at all with someone who believes more in dinosaurs than in the Bible. Did the authors of the Bible drink wine and smoke hash? In some cultures marijuana is believed to be a 'wisdom weed'.

Kawinski argued the court "should regard Doda's statements as expressions of opinion and not an attempt to insult people's religious feelings."

The Radio Poland summary mentioned two issues I hope are addressed elsewhere in the press -- the role of politicians in pushing hate speech prosecution and the role of self-appointed speech guardians. While the Catholic Church exerts tremendous influence in Poland, it was not the church that pushed the prosecution but a political action committee and a senator.

Who exactly is the Nationwide Defence Committee Against Sects and for whom do they speak? And is the senator from the conservative Law and Justice party pushing this issue for domestic political reasons? Are there parallels between Senator Kogut's actions in the Doda affair and Senator Jesse Helms' comments in the "Piss Christ" controversy?

On one level Doda's words are akin to the stunts beloved by Madonna and Lady Gaga -- actions that appear to have been undertaken to be provocative -- and to sell concert tickets. And as such, some may question whether this is truly a free speech issue.

I find it hard to draw a line between the  stunts pulled by Doda, Madonna, and Lady Gaga, and middle brow épater le bourgeois events like Terrance McNally's "Corpus Christi" or "Piss Christ". Mockery of religion in art lost its edge about 75 years ago and is more often silly than profound.

These may be in bad taste and of dubious artistic merit but how can we distinguish them from writers such as Salman Rushdie or artists like Gilbert and George? What the Polish press is doing is setting the question of aesthetics to one side and concentrating on the right of a minority to speak against the views of the majority.

The stories in the Polish press -- Radio Poland excluded -- are advocacy stories, I should note. They recount the facts but are not shy about taking a side and stating their opinion. I salute them for speaking out -- even if it is on behalf of multimillionaire pop stars. Would the press in the U.S. only challenge the pieties of this country -- sexual orientation, race, gender, ethnicity -- as the Polish press has done.

But is the Polish press really speaking out for the underdog here? Or, is their support for free speech misguided when it comes to deliberate attempts to be provocative? What say you GetReligion readers? Is there a place for speech codes -- above and beyond slander laws -- in journalism and in public discourse?

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