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Harsh Criticism of Religion Made Illegal:

No, not by the mullahs; not by Ashcroft; rather, by the Parliament. of Victoria, the Australian state that's home of Melbourne and a quarter of all Australians. The Victoria Racial and Religious Tolerance Act of 2001 provides that "A person must not, on the ground of the religious belief or activity of another person or class of persons engage in conduct that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of, that other person or class of persons."

There's a defense for people who, among other things, are "reasonably and in good faith" engaging in "genuine academic, artistic, religious or scientific" commentary, or otherwise acting "in the public interest." But the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal held two months ago that this defense is available only to those who speak "reasonabl[y]" and who "honestly and conscientiously endeavour to have regard to and minimise the harm [the speech] . . . will . . . inflict," as opposed to "us[ing the freedom of speech] as a cover to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate people."

Among other things, speech that isn't "a fair representation of [another group's] religious beliefs" is punishable, as is speech that fails to "distinguish between moderate and extremist" members of a religion. Likewise, the tribunal seemed particularly troubled by speech that "mock[s] what [members of a religious group believe," or "repeatly invoke[s] laughter from the audience when describing apparent [religious] beliefs." (Naturally, the decision and the statute give little guidance as to what exactly you can say in order that your comments be found "reasonable" and "fair.") The decision (Islamic Council of Victoria v Catch the Fire Ministries Inc) held some Christian speakers liable for harshly criticizing and mocking Islam — among other things, saying "that the Qur'an promotes violence, killing and looting," "that it treats women badly," "that Allah is not merciful and a thief's hand is cut off for stealing," and more. But of course, if the law is applied evenhandedly, it would equally apply to atheists criticizing religious people generally (think "religion is the opium of the masses" but with some more elaboration), or at least members of a particular religion. It would apply to people criticizing Catholicism for its supposed oppression of women or historical crimes. It would apply to people mocking beliefs like those of Catch the Fire Ministries, or harshly criticizing the Falwells and the Robertsons.

This is an awful position for a democracy to take. Religions are ideologies, and need to be subject to criticism like any other ideology — especially when the religions are motive forces for important political and moral movements. Some of this criticism will involve mockery, laughter, and severe ridicule; and ridiculing religious ideologies will naturally implicitly or explicitly ridicule people who hold those views, especially when the speaker gives examples of folly that the ideology supposedly causes. Yet if you take religion seriously, as a set of ideas that, if true, should affect people's lives, you have to accept the possibility that some religious ideas are false and harmful, and deserve harsh criticism and not just bland ecumenical toleration.

I would prefer that such criticisms be fair, polite, and measured; but it's impossible for the law to punish only the rude and excessive form without also punishing and deterring important content. John Stuart Mill dealt with all this a century and a half ago, and his position is as sound today as it was then.

In any event, this is just another reminder to be cautious about proposals to create a new "hate speech" exception in U.S. constitutional law, by replacing the supposed excessive rigidity of modern First Amendment law with a more balanced and nuanced approach. Seems to me that our rigidity on this score is far superior to Euro-Canado-Australian flexibility.

UPDATE: My original post erroneously said that the law was enacted by the Australian Parliament; it turns out that it is a state law, which covers only the state of Victoria. Thanks to readers Jarrod Weir and Peter Laverick for correcting me.

Related Posts (on one page):

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  2. Be Careful What You Wish For:
  3. Harsh Criticism of Religion Made Illegal:
Be Careful What You Wish For:

One thing I noticed recently is the increasing sentiment among some American Jews in favor of "hate speech" restrictions, especially given the recent incidents of anti-Semitism at some universities. I just ran into that a couple of days ago on a Jewish academics' discussion list on which I'm a passive reader. The Australian decision that found harsh criticism of Islam illegal should, I think, be a reminder that hate speech bans can bite anyone.

Many people think such laws will ban criticism (which they think is hateful, and much of which may indeed be hateful) of their group. But they quickly discover that the laws easily spread, and soon spread to criticisms that you yourself may want to make — though of course you'll make such criticisms much more fairly and temperately, and naturally you're completely sure that a hostile judiciary will recognize this and find your speech to be different, right?

Justice Douglas put it well when dissenting from Beauharnais v. Illinois, a 1952 case that upheld a law that banned libels of races and religions (and that is fortunately widely believed to have been implicitly overruled):

Today a white man stands convicted for protesting in unseemly language against our decisions invalidating restrictive covenants. Tomorrow a negro will be hailed before a court for denouncing lynch law in heated terms. Farm laborers in the west who compete with field hands drifting up from Mexico; whites who feel the pressure of orientals; a minority which finds employment going to members of the dominant religious group — all of these are caught in the mesh of today's decision.

Today you may want Aryan racists or Muslim radicals to be convicted for condemning Jews. Tomorrow a Christian will be haled before a court for denouncing Islam in heated terms. The next day someone with perfectly fair and sensible criticisms of Islam will be convicted because his views seem too radical or not sufficiently balanced for the judicial elites of the time.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Whoops:
  2. Be Careful What You Wish For:
  3. Harsh Criticism of Religion Made Illegal:
Whoops:

My post yesterday on harsh ridicule of religion in Australia contained an important error: The law that I criticize is a law in the state of Victoria (home of Melbourne, and roughly a quarter of Australians), not a federal law that covers all Australia. D'oh! My apologies for the error, and my thanks to readers Jarrod Weir and Peter Laverick for setting me straight.

My criticism of the law, however, still stands.