Posted by: smstrouse | September 15, 2012

Weighing Free Speech and Religious Sensitivity

Enough is being said in many other places about the terrible violence resulting from the anti-Islamic video clip that surfaced on YouTube.   No need to repeat the spurious contributions of the (so-called) Rev. Terry Jones and candidate Mitt Romney and company. No need either to repeat (but definitely refer you to) the beneficial commentaries of interfaith luminaries such as Eboo Patel of Interfaith Youth Corp and administration spokespeople, particularly Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.  

No doubt about it, this video is offensive. But so is the violent reaction against it. We have to stand with those who denounce the violence and who rightly recognize that the actions of some adherents of a religion do not speak or act for all.  But, as offensive as the video is, it is simply a match that has ignited the already dry kindling of anti-Islamic sentiments and anti-American reactions – which may have been its intention all along.  I don’t know; information is still coming in about who was behind the video. 

What is intriguing to me is the argument of free speech vs. religious sensitivity that this controversy has engendered.  Google originally refused to take down the YouTube video, claiming that it fell within its guidelines. But after a request from the White House they finally relented and blocked access in Egypt, Libya, India, Indonesia and Afghanistan. But free speech absolutists argue that the government has no business interfering.  Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine wrote: “I think the only response of the US government in these cases should be the following: ‘A private citizen has expressed a controversial view. If you disagree with that view, please take it up with him. The only responsibility the US government has in these cases is to uphold the person’s right to free speech. Free speech is a sacred principle of our culture and civilization.'” That, of course, is the freedom that gives Terry Jones the right to spew his repugnant views about Islam. 

But the First Amendment does have exceptions. I don’t have the right to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.  It seems to me that this film does just that.  Knowing as we do the seriousness with which blasphemy is taken by many Muslims, that the Qur’an is believed to be the literal word of God, and that many Muslims believe that no representations should be made of the Prophet Muhammad – it is a no brainer to expect strong reaction to an incendiary book, cartoon, video, etc.

Is that a good enough reason to impose self-censorship or government and media restrictions on free speech?  This is a tricky question because what is blasphemous to one person or group may not be to another. Take the charges of blasphemy within Christianity. We might look with amusement upon reactions to the 1888 film ‘The Last Temptation of Christ, such as his from Bill Bright, President of Campus Crusade for Christ: “Absolutely the most blasphemous, degenerate, immoral depraved script and film that I believe it is possible to conceive.”

But prosecutions for blasphemy have happened in America history. Both the Virginia and Massachusetts Bay colonies passed laws providing the death penalty for blasphemy. But the only individuals actually executed were four Quakers. They had been banished by the government of Massachusetts for denouncing the Puritan church, and were hanged in 1659 when they violated their banishment and returned to the colony. But although no prosecutions for blasphemy have taken place in the United States since 1971, that doesn’t mean that we live in an ‘anything goes’ society.  Artists from The Beatles, Madonna and lady Gaga have been accused of blasphemy.  Films such as “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “The Life of Brian,” and “Dogma” – to name just a few – have incurred the wrath (and boycott) of conservative Christian groups.

I myself would categorize the ravings of Terry Jones, Fred Phelps of Westboro ‘Church’ and Pat Robertson as more blasphemous than a silly Madonna video.  Does that give me the right to censure them?  Well, yes maybe, if their rants were incendiary and riot-provoking.  Which is why in this case, I have to come down on the side of religious sensitivity – even though I know that it’s not all about religion and that anti-Islam and anti-American sentiments get whipped up for other reasons.  But knowing as we do what the religious sensitivities are and how they can be used and manipulated, then we have to recognize that we are in the crowded theater and have no right to yell ‘fire!’



  1. Thank you so much for giving everyone an extremely spectacular chance to read articles and blog posts from this blog. It’s always so kind and as well , full of fun for me personally and my office peers to visit your website on the least 3 times every week to learn the newest items you will have. Of course, I am also actually happy with the terrific advice served by you. Selected 3 areas on this page are definitely the simplest I have had.


  2. Well how would muslims like it if Americans went on a rampage and killed muslims for burning the American flag can we do that? If they can attack our people burn our flag and yell Death to America do we have the right to go out an attack and kill muslims because we are offended? We cant let people go kill people because they get offended. What kind of world do we want to live in?


  3. Do you want to live under Shariah Law or do you want to live under the Constitution. In Europe right now they have hate speech laws and guess what if you say anything against gays or islam you can be arrested. Muslims can stand on the streets make threats like Europe you Will Pay Your 9/11 is on the Way and nothing will happen to them. THIS SOUND FAIR TO YOU


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