“I know there are some who ask why we don’t just ban such a video,” Mr. Obama said. “The answer is enshrined in our laws: Our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech. . . . We do so not because we support hateful speech, but because our founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express [his] own views, and practice [his] own faith, may be threatened. We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities.”
This principled answer from the president did little to change the closed minds of the country’s Islamist enemies, however. “Obama's statements have caused a religious war,” stated Hafiz Saeed, the suspected mastermind of the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, India. “This is a very sensitive issue. This is not going to be resolved soon. Obama's statement has started a cultural war.”
It seems likely that calls for censorship and the curtailing of Americans’ First Amendment freedoms are likely to continue. Some observers believe that pressure for a kind of informal sharia code on speech will only expand in the West. “In the Middle East,” conservative pundit Mark Steyn writes, “Islam had always been beyond criticism. It was only natural that, as their numbers grew in Europe, North America, and Australia, observant Muslims would seek the same protections in their new lands. But they could not have foreseen how eager Western leaders would be to serve as their enablers.”
Indeed, one Los Angeles Times columnist, Sarah Chayes, has called for restrictions on certain kinds of speech that spark violence: “While many First Amendment scholars defend the right of the filmmakers to produce this film, arguing that the ensuing violence was not sufficiently imminent, others say the video may well fall outside constitutional guarantees of free speech. ‘Based on my understanding of the events,’ First Amendment authority Anthony Lewis said in an interview . . . ‘I think this meets the imminence standard.’”
Lewis, of course, is another columnist.
As concerning as this pressure is, it is not the only well publicized challenge to freedom of expression. Unfortunately, the primary instigators appear to be political allies of the president, among them Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, his former chief of staff, who said that popular fast-food chain Chick-fil-A does not reflect “Chicago values” because of CEO Dan Cathy’s opposition to homosexual marriage.
Another is Chicago Alderman Proco “Joe” Moreno, who initially blocked Chick-fil-A from opening a restaurant in “his” ward, citing the company's donations to groups (such as Family Research Council) that oppose gay marriage and its supposedly discriminatory hiring practices—though he produced no evidence.
Emanuel and Moreno’s actions, ironically, seem a perfect illustration of the president’s subsequent words at the U.N. about how “efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities.” Their smash-mouth tactics appeared to fail, however, when tens of thousands of concerned Americans turned out in support of Chick-fil-A and freedom of expression on August 1.
Yet the controversy has not faded away. Last month Moreno declared victory, claiming that the chain’s leaders had agreed to change their stance on homosexuality, and that consequently he would re-evaluate the restaurant application. CEO Cathy, however, says chain “made no such concessions, and we remain true to who we are and who we have been.”
William McGurn, a columnist at the Wall Street Journal, sees the skirmishing over Chick-fil-A as part of a larger battle: “No matter who is telling the truth, this much we know: The targeting of Chick-fil-A is but one front in an ugly campaign where the goal isn't so much to prevail in a political argument as to buffalo opposing voices into silence.” In other words, the aim is to “silence critics and oppress minorities.”
McGurn cites other examples in the economic and political realms before pointing out, “In short, under the false flag of better governance, the activists are working hard to impose standards and codes that would make it impossible for American business—and individuals—to support any but the most politically correct causes.”
While no one should defend the hateful message delivered by a nasty video, it does not follow therefore that we ought to restrict speech. As Voltaire is widely believed to have said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Traditionally the cure for bad speech in America has been more speech—not less. Certainly churches and Christians have benefited from a culture of free speech and freedom of religion. “We hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth,” James Madison wrote, “that Religion or the duty to which we owe our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.”
Those who seek to restrict freedom of expression, however hateful—whether from the left or the right—even for the best of motives, are not doing the will of God. So whether the pressure comes from Muslim militants or political leftists, we Christians ought to encourage truth and grace in our expressions, even while we stand against any attempts to limit speech.
For, as Pastor Martin Niemoeller said, “First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”
Image copyright AP/Rahmat Gul.
Stan Guthrie is author of “All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century,” and coauthor of “The Sacrament of Evangelism.” He blogs at http://stanguthrie.com.