Got news? A cry for liberal rights

woman_with_hand_over_mouthYour GetReligionistas, as a rule, do not focus on op-ed page pieces very often. When we do so we try to focus on topics that will be of interest to mainstream journalists who cover religion news and news that veers into religion. Well, USA Today has just published a piece that certainly falls into this category. At the same time, I've done some searching online and have found a stunningly small number of mainstream reports on the news event at the heart of this essay. So you can call this a "Got news?" topic, as well.

It's a subject that should be of strong interest to anyone who holds liberal views on issues of freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of artistic expression and free speech. Here is the top of the essay by law professor Jonathan Turley of George Washington University, focusing on the impact of blasphemy laws on religious minorities and freethinkers of all kinds.

Guess who is backing the religious authorities (or at the very least, trying to appease them through compromise) who want to crush these rights? The White House.

Around the world, free speech is being sacrificed on the altar of religion. Whether defined as hate speech, discrimination or simple blasphemy, governments are declaring unlimited free speech as the enemy of freedom of religion. This growing movement has reached the United Nations, where religiously conservative countries received a boost in their campaign to pass an international blasphemy law. It came from the most unlikely of places: the United States.

While attracting surprisingly little attention, the Obama administration supported the effort of largely Muslim nations in the U.N. Human Rights Council to recognize exceptions to free speech for any "negative racial and religious stereotyping." The exception was made as part of a resolution supporting free speech that passed this month, but it is the exception, not the rule that worries civil libertarians. Though the resolution was passed unanimously, European and developing countries made it clear that they remain at odds on the issue of protecting religions from criticism. It is viewed as a transparent bid to appeal to the "Muslim street" and our Arab allies, with the administration seeking greater coexistence through the curtailment of objectionable speech. Though it has no direct enforcement (and is weaker than earlier versions), it is still viewed as a victory for those who sought to juxtapose and balance the rights of speech and religion.

The White House is cooperating in this effort with the government of Egypt, which isn't exactly a liberal society when it comes to human rights. The essay notes that Egyptian authorities nailed a journal for publishing a poem by Helmi Salem "because one of his poems compared God to a villager who feeds ducks and milks cows." Egypt praised the White House's growing understanding that religious liberty must yield to government controls, in some cases. Say what?

This is appalling to Turley, in part because of its impact on the voices of reformers. The first people to be silenced are Muslim reformers and moderates, after all. That, and converts. One would also think that journalists would scream bloody murder about the implications of this for a free press in these lands.

Thinly disguised blasphemy laws are often defended as necessary to protect the ideals of tolerance and pluralism. They ignore the fact that the laws achieve tolerance through the ultimate act of intolerance: criminalizing the ability of some individuals to denounce sacred or sensitive values. We do not need free speech to protect popular thoughts or popular people. It is designed to protect those who challenge the majority and its institutions. Criticism of religion is the very measure of the guarantee of free speech -- the literal sacred institution of society.

So here we go, beginning with those cartoons in Denmark.

Please note that there are "liberal" cases and "conservative" cases, but the theme running through them all is the same -- the weakening of classic, liberal stands in defense of free speech and freedom of religion. But left and right should not matter in these cases, correct? First Amendment liberals (count me in) would seek consistency.

muhammad-supreme-courtHere are a few of Turley's examples, and note that these are in the western world:

* In Holland, Dutch prosecutors arrested cartoonist Gregorius Nekschot for insulting Christians and Muslims with cartoons, including one that caricatured a Christian fundamentalist and a Muslim fundamentalist as zombies who want to marry and attend gay rallies.

* In Canada, the Alberta human rights commission punished the Rev. Stephen Boission and the Concerned Christian Coalition for anti-gay speech, not only awarding damages but also censuring future speech that the commission deems inappropriate.

* In Italy, comedian Sabina Guzzanti was put under criminal investigation for joking at a rally that "in 20 years, the pope will be where he ought to be -- in hell, tormented by great big poofter (gay) devils, and very active ones." ...

* In Poland, Catholic magazine Gosc Niedzielny was fined $11,000 for inciting "contempt, hostility and malice" by comparing the abortion of a woman to the medical experiments at Auschwitz.

You get the idea. There are, sadly, plenty of other examples. Try not to focus on the issues involved in these cases, since they do focus on issues that are sure to offend many. That is precisely the point. Without the right to offend, without the right to blaspheme, without the right to convert to another faith, you do not have free speech. It's hard to do journalism, too.

And, while we are at it, how about the freedom of association? Julia Duin of the Washington Times has an interesting column on that threatened right, opening with Liberty University's decision to distance itself from its Young Democrats Club. While Liberty may have some right, as a private institution that is a voluntary association, to take the actions that it did, what was the point? That to be Christians and pro-life, students have to be Republicans? And is the requirement that students be pro-life articulated in the student code, right out there in the open?

Private schools -- left and right -- are allowed to discriminate based on doctrines, doctrines based on speech codes or doctrines based on the Bible. But the doctrines are supposed to be clearly stated so that the association is truly voluntary. Duin goes on to show that people who claim to be liberal are having trouble being consistent on these matters, especially when the cases are at state schools where discrimination is supposed to be against the rules. But, you see, it's tolerant in some zip codes to be intolerant to people that you believe are intolerant.

Check it out.

Note: The second photo is the image of Mohammed the lawgiver, carved into stone at the U.S. Supreme Court.

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