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Aug 24 2007

The messy world of free speech

From Florida comes this report of a Christian evangelist who’s had his TV show yanked off a local station because he can’t resist talking smack about Islam.

Earlier this month, officials from the Council on American Islamic Relations wrote a letter to the TV station’s owners asking for an investigation of the show it broadcasts, “Live Prayer with Bill Keller.”

In a May 2 broadcast, the televangelist said Islam was a “1,400-year-old lie from the pits of hell” and called the Prophet Mohammed a “murdering pedophile.” He also called the Koran a “book of fables and a book of lies.”

Well, I for one utterly agree with the last statement, though I would add that Keller’s Bible also qualifies. I’d have to reserve judgment on the second statement and would agree with the first half of the first statement, too. Someone else who I’m sure would largely agree with Keller would be atheist bestseller Sam Harris, who’s written that Islam is nothing less than the “enemy of civilization”. It’s sweet when we can all see eye to eye on something, isn’t it?

So, were local Muslims understandably offended? Sure they were. Should they have been allowed to protest the show, even to the point of having it taken off the air? Yes again. But did Keller have a Constitutionally protected right to voice his opinions of Islam, however offensive they were? Why, we’re back to yes. Welcome to the conflicted and messy world of free speech.

There are actually many layers to a situation such as this. One valid criticism one might make of Keller is that while he has a Constitutional right to spew invective about a competing religion, he does not (nor does anyone else) have a Constitutional right to a TV show, and members of any community as well as a television station itself have every right to drop something that they find appalling. Readers will note a similarity here to the recent firing of celebrity radio clod Don Imus for making racist wisecracks. It’s a tossup as to which situation is more offensive: Imus made a joke, though an egregiously juvenile and thoughtless one, while Keller was really being deliberately confrontational and insulting.

Should Imus have been fired? I’d have to waffle and say definitely maybe (a long suspension would have served fine; after all, the man’s been offending people on the air for 30 years now, so it’s not as if he hasn’t got a rep). Imus’s bad joke served no purpose but to insult a group of people who’d done nothing to deserve it (quite the opposite, in fact), and was in fact not an insult over anything they’d done at all, but over who they were and the color of their skin. There wasn’t, nor could there have been, any valid programming context to justify its utterance.

Should Keller have been similarly canned, though? I don’t think so. In this case, there’s no bones made about who the man is and what kind of program he’s got. The station which carried him had to have known he was an evangelical Christian, and thus he’d be spouting barbarian opinions on any number of subjects. And since when should anyone be taken aback that a program promoting one religion would, every now and again, knock the competition?

When people express strong opinions, someone will be offended. Period. The Atheist Experience offends a lot of Christians simply by existing at all. Dawkins criticizes faith and is labeled a bully and an “atheist fundamentalist” and a thought-cop and a bigot, though everything I’ve read of his is delivered in a tone that, while certainly confrontational and blunt, never merely seeks to insult people on a personal level. Christians, on their TV networks, say personally insulting things about atheists, liberals, homosexuals, and basically anyone who isn’t in their club with such reliability that you can practically set your watch by the frequency of Pat Robertson’s latest idiotic remark.

In a culture that supports free speech, offensive statements should be allowed, but expressly so they can be aired and then subject to criticism and debate. This is why I think the bad guys in this scenario here are neither Keller nor the Islamic group who got his show pulled, but the TV station itself, for not allowing the Islamic group a chance to counter Keller’s remarks. We all cringe with disgust when filth like Fred Phelps or the KKK announce they’re coming to town. But the value there is that when they do come, hundreds of people whose minds are not poisoned by religious bigotry and ignorance find themselves rallying together in counter-protest.

So I say yeah, Keller should be allowed to have a show if he can find a station that’ll take him on. And the Islamic citizens whom he offends should be able to rebut him publicly and encourage viewers not to watch his show and boycott his sponsors. And there should also be a nice, family atheist show on Florida TV as well, pointing out that both these folks are full of shit and offering rationalism as a better alternative to both. If anything in this modern world is aggressively Darwinian, it’s the marketplace of ideas. Let the bad ideas have free rein, if only so that better ideas can be aired to challenge and ultimately conquer them.


Okay, having said all that, I will anticipate and respond to a criticism I can already see some of our Christian readers making. Isn’t it hypocritical of me, they might say, as an atheist, for you to support free speech and the exchange of ideas when it comes to something like religious broadcasting, but not when it comes to giving equal time to intelligent design alongside evolution in science classrooms?

In short, no. Religious television shows and similar entertainment venues are forums in which people express opinions, even when they’re deluded people who think their opinions are facts. Science classrooms are different, because they are educational (not entertainment) venues in which facts, and not opinions, are to be discussed. If certain facts in science are controversial, then that itself is a fact and is free to be taught there. The reason right now for opposition to ID in classrooms is that the side promoting it hasn’t shored up sufficient facts for their challenge to evolution to be accepted as legit. If the ID camp devoted a fraction of the attention they devote to media dog-and-pony-shows and indignant press releases to actual scientific research programs, then they wouldn’t be currently denied the respect of academia that they seem to feel is their birthright. There’s no appropriate comparison between censoring opinions in the media and refusing to teach students things that aren’t supported by facts in our schools.

7 comments

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  1. 1
    vjack

    I think you need to be careful about confusing Constitutional protections and network broadcast decisions. The Constitutional assurance of free speech means that I cannot be arrested by the state for critiquing Islam on the street corner. It does not apply in this way to statements I make on a corporate-owned television network. If this televangelist wants to attack Islam on his show, it is up to his corporate handlers to decide whether they’ll permit it or not. Regardless of their decision, it is not a Constitutional issue, and the televangelist has no Constitutionally protected right to broadcast his opinions on a television network he doesn’t own. He does however have the right to do so on a public street corner.

  2. 2
    ouini

    ID is much more scientific than darwinism. I suggest you read some books of Dr. Henry Morris or visit the Discovery Institute’s website. I only hope that you discover the Truth before you are judged.Just kidding. Good analysis, good post.

  3. 3
    tina FCD

    Holy smokes, I agree with everything you said.

  4. 4
    Martin

    Hey vjack. I believe all that’s exactly what I said.

  5. 5
    tracieh

    Martin:You were quite clear: “There are actually many layers to a situation such as this. One valid criticism one might make of Keller is that while he has a Constitutional right to spew invective about a competing religion, he does not (nor does anyone else) have a Constitutional right to a TV show…”Your message, if I may paraphrase, was only that in your opinion there would be a greater benefit to society if unsound ideas were allowed to be expressed–because rebutting them does more good than silencing them in that it allows people to actually make it clear to everyone in a public way, WHY they’re unsound ideas.And I agree.When you wrote that you didn’t think he should have been fired, I didn’t take that as you saying the station was wrong. I took it as you saying that in an ideal situation, he’d be allowed to talk, and then his opponents would get equal time to address his comments. And the public could judge for themselves which idea is more sound.With regard to ID in a science classroom, that’s very basic. It’s a science classroom. It’s not a metaphysics classroom or a religion classroom or a philosophy classroom or a literature classroom. Saying ID should get equal time is like saying Shakespeare should get equal time. ID is not science. Shakespeare is not science. When ID can present data/research from peer-reviewed science journals that has gained wide scientific acceptance, then it can make its case in a science classroom.You stated this, but in a slightly different way. And I thought it might be worthwhile to just make the point as idiot-proof as possible.

  6. 6
    Martin

    You have this habit of expressing my points better than I do, Tracie! How do you do it? :-)

  7. 7
    tracieh

    That’s funny. I think the same thing when people rephrase what I’ve said–that they seem to say it more clearly or concisely. Maybe it’s simply a “grass is always” greener perspective issue?

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