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Sep 26 2012

All blasphemers

Eric Posner has a rather limp article in Slate, sort of saying the Feds should do something about the “Innocence of Muslims” video and sort of not quite saying it.

Greg Lukianoff writes a much more interesting piece in the Huffington Post in reply.

…lately, it seems as though we’ve gotten so used to our First Amendment rights as a country that we take them for granted and forget the deadly serious reasons why we decided that these freedoms should serve as the building blocks for our society in the first place.

I don’t forget the deadly serious reasons. Maybe that’s because I pay so much attention to places like Pakistan and Russia.

Ironically, the institutions most likely to take free speech and/or other basic rights for granted in the United States are the institutions most reliant on free and open debate: our colleges and universities.

As I have reported for years in the Huffington Post and as I discuss at length in my forthcoming book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, I have seen students on college campuses get in trouble for the mildest imaginable expression. In other cases, students suffer for their politically relevant, but locally unpopular, speech.

So it was no surprise to me that when the trailer for “Innocence of Muslims” debuted on YouTube and Islamic militants all over the globe began using it as an excuse to attack American embassies and kill our diplomats, the first prominent people to rise up and say “see, I told you we were wrong about free speech” were college professors.

First, there was professor Anthea Butler of the University of Pennsylvania who wrote an op-ed in USA Today arguing that Sam Bacile (the video’s purported maker) should be thrown in jail.

I followed that last link. Guess what her field is. Religious studies.

Then, this week, similar criticism came from a much more serious source: University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner.

Posner, son of famous jurist Richard Posner of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, wrote in Slate that Americans foolishly overvalue free speech and that the violence committed because of the video should cause us to reconsider our free speech radicalism.

For those of us who work in First Amendment law, Posner relies on pretty tired arguments that I plan to address piece by piece in upcoming posts. But before I get too entangled in the details of what was so wrong about Professor Posner had to say, it’s important to take a step back and realize why punishing a citizen for offending a religion is so dangerous.

Allow me to interrupt and give my explanation of why punishing a citizen for offending a religion is so dangerous.

It’s because religions have a special kind of power, and we all need protection from that power. Everything about religion should be optional, because otherwise, it’s coercive and tyrannical beyond the dreams of ordinary secular institutions. Respect for religion or religions or any one religion should never, ever be made mandatory, because we need to be able to say No.

…if we start punishing people in the United States because they’ve offended the beliefs of people of other faiths, we will have put the United States government in the role of enforcer of a religious norm.

Pre-cisely.

It’s become easy for American academics, elites and contrarians to scoff at the universal values of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom from imposed beliefs. But while America may be almost alone as a nation in being relatively purist about these doctrines, this does not mean we are wrong. A nation and even a world where it’s safe for people to believe as they choose–or not to believe at all–is one worth aspiring towards.

Damn right.

2 comments

  1. 1
    M can help you with that.

    All this talk about legally-mandated “respect” for religions has me wanting to dust off my status as a Discordian Episkopos and start publicly demanding that, in the spirit of “respect for all religions,” hot dog buns must immediately be banned worldwide. And all worshippers of Greyface (including Christians, Muslims, etc.) must be legally required to praise Eris at appropriate times. Failure to praise Eris is blasphemy!

  2. 2
    Ant (@antallan)

    Failure to praise Eris can only lead to discord…

    Oh.

    /@

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