On the Academy and offensive speech

This is a note from a reader, addressing my take on the one-sided Los Angeles Times series on religious tensions at the Air Force Academy. This is an important issue to this blog, so let's dig into it a bit. Is this really a story about First Amendment rights?

I don't think so. This is a story about harassment and abuse of power. The cadets' superiors are applying pressure to try to make them adopt the superiors' religion. This is like a boss putting pressure on employees to do something that is not job related. That "something" could be anything from sex to buying his kids raffle tickets.

Posted by ceemac at 8:23 pm on May 7, 2005

As I have said before, it does appear that harassment has taken place. That is not the issue. However, we do not know if it is taking place in classrooms and official forums. So far, the emphasis seems to be on non-official activities. And, as I have said before, to what extent do all student groups have access to email lists, bulletin boards, student-life forums, etc.?

If all groups have access, this would seem to be a matter for equal-access laws and it would be wrong to discriminate against religious content. Please see the original post. "Viewpoint discrimination" is supposed to be out of bounds. At the very least, this is a question that reporters need to be asking.

It would also help to realize that the whole issue of what military chaplains can and cannot preach has become a hot-button issue. Evangelicals insist that military structures dominated by liturgical-church chaplains have been showing serious bias against evangelicals who simply want the right to preach their own doctrines to their own believers in their own services.

Yes, the key issue is who is going to heaven and who is not. Apparently, a Baptist who is willing to preach like a Unitarian, or an Episcopalian, can get promoted while a Baptist who preaches like a Baptist will struggle to move up the ladder.

Sure enough, some of the Air Force Academy bias claims are linked to the content of sermons in services held for evangelical students. So are we really talking about creating tax-dollar-enforced speech codes that limit what men and women can say in their own sermons? Does this apply to Muslim clergy? Jews? Catholics? Wiccans?

Meanwhile, veteran USA Today reporter Patrick O'Driscoll, who has spent some time in the past on the religion beat, has filed a report on all of this that includes some new information. Here is a clip:

The investigation grew out of a survey of cadets and staff last year after another academy controversy: a 2003 scandal in which nearly 150 female cadets alleged that they had been sexually assaulted by fellow cadets in the previous decade.

Write-in remarks on religion prompted officials to conduct focus groups during the summer. The academy's superintendent, Lt. Gen. John Rosa, told the school's civilian oversight board last month that those yielded complaints of 55 instances of religious bias in the past five years, including proselytizing by Christians, use of Bible quotes in official e-mail and an ad promoting Jesus in the base newspaper, signed by 200 academy leaders.

OK, quotes in official email? That's serious. That is, it could be very serious. We need to know the meaning of the words "official email." Is that anything sent over the campus servers? Anything on letterhead? Anything that students are required to read? What are we talking about and to what degree do other student groups -- secular and religious -- get to use the same email systems?

Meanwhile, the word proselytizing gets thrown around a lot. The key is where this speech takes place. People have a right to debate all kinds of issues, including issues that make other people mad. If this speech took place in an official forum, with academy leaders doing the p-word stuff, then that is really serious. If it is a student being offended by one remark made by another student, the whole issue hinges on whether the offending student backed off when displeasure was expressed.

Again -- free speech causes tension. The goal is not to discriminate against religion in open forums, such as walking down a campus sidewalk or hanging out in the coffee shop.

And the ad in the newspaper? Again, is this a forum to which other religious groups have access? Could those offended by the ad purchase space and sign their names on an ad protesting the Jesus ad? If so -- just do it.

Official promotion of a faith with tax dollars is out of bounds. So is using tax dollars to crush free speech by religious people. We need reporting that lets us know about both sides of this equation. And one more question: Has anyone asked if religious conservatives are more likely, these days, to seek military careers than religious liberals or secularists? Just asking.

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