Perhaps in an effort to rehabilitate the United States’ image in the Muslim world, the Obama administration has joined a U.N. effort to restrict religious speech. This country should never sacrifice freedom of expression on the altar of religion.
By Jonathan Turley

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.
A 'misused' freedom?

In the resolution, the administration aligned itself with Egypt, which has long been criticized for prosecuting artists, activists and journalists for insulting Islam. For example, Egypt recently banned a journal that published respected poet Helmi Salem merely because one of his poems compared God to a villager who feeds ducks and milks cows. The Egyptian ambassador to the U.N., Hisham Badr, wasted no time in heralding the new consensus with the U.S.that "freedom of expression has been sometimes misused" and showing that the "true nature of this right" must yield government limitations.

His U.S. counterpart, Douglas Griffiths, heralded "this joint project with Egypt" and supported the resolution to achieve "tolerance and the dignity of all human beings." While not expressly endorsing blasphemy prosecutions, the administration departed from other Western allies in supporting efforts to balance free speech against the protecting of religious groups.

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.

Blasphemy prosecutions in the West appear to have increased after the riots by Muslims following the publication of cartoons disrespecting prophet Mohammed in Denmark in 2005. Rioters killed Christians, burned churches and called for the execution of the cartoonists. While Western countries publicly defended free speech, some quietly moved to deter those who'd cause further controversies through unpopular speech.

In Britain, it is a crime to "abuse" or "threaten" a religion under the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. A 15-year-old boy was charged last year for holding up a sign outside a Scientology building declaring, "Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult. "In France, famed actress Brigitte Bardot was convicted for saying in 2006 that Muslims were ruining France in a letter to then-Interior Minister (and now President) Nicolas Sarkozy. This year, Ireland joined this self-destructive trend with a blasphemy law that calls for the prosecution of anyone who writes or utters views deemed "grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion; and he or she intends, by the publication of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage."
'Blasphemy' incidents

Consider just a few such Western "blasphemy" cases in the past two years:

• 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 London, an aide to British Foreign Secretary David Miliband was arrested for "inciting religious hatred" at his gym by shouting obscenities about Jews while watching news reports of Israel's bombardment of Gaza.Also, Dutch politician Geert Wilders was barred from entering Britain as a "threat to public policy, public security or public health" because he made a movie describing the Quran as a "fascist" book and Islam as a violent religion.

• 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.

The "blasphemy" cases include the prosecution of writers for calling Mohammed a "pedophile" because of his marriage to 6-year-old Aisha (which was consummated when she was 9). A far-right legislator in Austria, a publisher in India and a city councilman in Finland have been prosecuted for repeating this view of the historical record.

In the flipside of the cartoon controversy, Dutch prosecutors this year have brought charges against the Arab European League for a cartoon questioning the Holocaust.
What's next?

Private companies and institutions are following suit in what could be seen as responding to the Egyptian-U.S. call for greater "responsibility" in controlling speech. For example, in an act of unprecedented cowardice and self-censorship, Yale University Press published The Cartoons That Shook the World, a book by Jytte Klausen on the original Mohammed cartoons. Yale, however, (over Klausen's objections) cut the actual pictures of the cartoons. It was akin to publishing a book on the Sistine Chapel while barring any images of the paintings.

The public and private curtailment on religious criticism threatens religious and secular speakers alike. However, the fear is that, when speech becomes sacrilegious, only the religious will have true free speech. It is a danger that has become all the more real after the decision of the Obama administration to join in the effort to craft a new faith-based speech standard. It is now up to Congress and the public to be heard before the world leaves free speech with little more than a hope and a prayer.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.

Views: 66

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

One of the key points of this article is this:

The public and private curtailment on religious criticism threatens religious and secular speakers alike. However, the fear is that, when speech becomes sacrilegious, only the religious will have true free speech. It is a danger that has become all the more real after the decision of the Obama administration to join in the effort to craft a new faith-based speech standard. It is now up to Congress and the public to be heard before the world leaves free speech with little more than a hope and a prayer.

I must admit I am very disappointed...
I also found this response to this article interesting coming from a religious person:

I'm a pretty religious person, and I think laws restricting speech in the name of God are idiotic. As with speech about anything, if you don't like hearing something, DON'T LISTEN TO IT! If you feel what is said is wrong, use your own free speech rights to try and change hearts and minds. Unfortunately, since treaties are generally enforced above the constitution, there is a real danger that this could severely restrict speech in a way that is nearly impossible to undo.

I realize Mr. Obama is trying to reach out to the Islamic world, but offering up a basic freedom that people have been fighting and dieing for for 230 years to appease lunatics who act violently because of a cartoon is asinine in the extreme.
Agreed, and euphemisms are wholly inadequate to this task.
This is bullshit; what a waste of a vote. Even though the US has the most pervasive religious faction in a free country, we still have the most freedom of expression. Obama is fucking things up with this. Who's up for moving to Canada? We don't have to live near the western boarder where Palin might hunt us down.
If this is the case, then any religious speech at all will be blasphemous. If you say Christ is the Lord, you have blasphemed against Muslims. Say that Jesus was only a lesser prophet to Mohammed, and you have blasphemed Christianity. No one will be able to publicly practice any religion! Any profession of a particular faith will offend all the others!

Brilliant!
Precisely, just like the blasphemy law recently passed in Ireland.

Of course, the blasphemy ruling being promoted by the UN is less of a ruling to protect religions from being blasphemed against, and more of a ruling designed to make it illegal to say anything bad about Islam.

I'd say I was highly disappointed in Obama, but I stopped expecting anything useful out of him some time ago.
Well, guess I'm gonna get charged with something then. If they pass this, my response will be to declare loudly on my own website that all their stupid religions suck, and I will proceed to trash them all individually. Wonder what the penalty for breaking this law will be? I'll let you guys know!
Finally! A good representation of atheists within our prison system!
This is really, really disappointing. My intent is to write a letter of my disapproval to the White House, using the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United States Constitution, and what information I can find on this supposed restriction.

I found a draft of it here. I don't know how accurate this is at all, but it's dated the 23 of September. At least it's a starting point. I went to the UNs website, but couldn't find anything on it yet.
Okay.

I'm reading the draft right now, and if the actual document that was supposedly accepted without a vote is anything like this, there is no suggestion whatsoever that any rights be taken away.

What this document "encourages" (because that's all the UN can really do) is that States get up off their butts and do something about violence in the name of religion.

It even states, specifically (and I'm going to omit the unnecessary words here - you can read this part at the bottom of p4), that States are to "refrain from...imposing restrictions" on: "expression of opinion and dissent, religion or belief, including by persons belonging to minorities or vulnerable groups;

(ii) The free flow of information and ideas, including practices such as the banning or closing of publications or other media and the abuse of administrative measures and censorship;"

I mean, maybe I've just forgotten how to read, or maybe whatever was actually adopted was completely and totally different from what I just read. But this doesn't sound as horrible as all the bloggy blogs I just read made it out to be.
Or maybe most of us didn't do what we were supposed to do, like you did. We SHOULD have all gone and read the damn thing for ourselves. Instead, we listened to the dumbfuck American media and let them spin us into a froth. I'm disappointed in myself for not doing exactly what you did. Thanks Ashli!
Well, I've been searching for a more updated version of the thingity. Here's the most updated one I can find.

So, it's not this crazy "Silence, bastions of rationality, for the religious nutjobs may have their sensibilities offended" document I was imagining, but there is some language in there that might be a little too broad for the spectrum of the United Nations (in my opinion). For example, paragraph 4 on page 3 says "negative racial and religious stereotyping" but doesn't define it. Something like that, which seems to be the basis for this very document, really needs to be clearly defined.

Finally, there's another paragraph that I suspect has a lot of folks all up-in-arms (paragraph 9 on page 7):
"9. Recognizes the positive contribution that the exercise of the right to freedom of
expression, particularly by the media, including through information and
communication technologies such as the Internet, and full respect for the freedom to
seek, receive and impart information can make to the fight against racism, racial
discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance and to preventing human rights
abuses, but expresses regret at the promotion by certain media of false images and
negative stereotypes of vulnerable individuals or groups of individuals, and at the
use of information and communication technologies such as the Internet for purposes
contrary to respect for human rights, in particular the perpetration of violence against
and exploitation and abuse of women and children, and disseminating racist and
xenophobic discourse or content;"

Upon reading this, the language does seem dangerous. This isn't in the section where the UN-HRC is calling on the States to do anything, it's simply a statement about the Human Rights Council itself. But it's very passive-aggressive in its language. Like when one of your parents would say, "Well, I'm not going to say you can't do that," even though you knew they really didn't want you do to whatever the action was, and if you did do it they'd be all irritated for a day or so - except this comes with international consequences.

I'm a little frothy over it. It seems to be toeing the line a bit. There is other language in the measure, though, that I quoted above that still remained in the final draft which seems to clarify that the UN-HRC has no intentions of curbing freedom of speech and expression or opinion. It seems to me that it's geared more toward extremely hateful and violence-provoking activity. But still - that's speech, and it shouldn't be limited. What should be limited is the violence that would ensue. Though the intentions are good, I'm not certain the way they're being gone about is.

Another thing I noticed in the document is that it calls upon states to ensure that their laws regarding imprisonment/fines for offenses relating to the media are consistent with human rights laws, and a general call for consistency with human rights laws overall in conjunction with freedom of religion, expression and opinion. I really think that's what they were going for, but they've overshot that mark a bit.

RSS

Blog Posts

My Dad and the Communist Spies

Posted by Brad Snowder on August 20, 2014 at 2:39pm 0 Comments

Breaking Free

Posted by A. T. Heist on August 20, 2014 at 9:56am 4 Comments

Services we love!

We are in love with our Amazon

Book Store!

Gadget Nerd? Check out Giz Gad!

Advertise with ThinkAtheist.com

In need a of a professional web site? Check out the good folks at Clear Space Media

© 2014   Created by umar.

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service