Censorship Envy in England:

The Daily Mail (UK) reports:

A leading art gallery is being taken to court over claims that it outraged public decency by displaying a statue depicting Christ with an erection....

Other pieces in the show by the controversial Chinese-born artist Terence Koh included models of Mickey Mouse and ET, also with erections. [The gallery, which opened in 2003 after a £35million grant from the Arts Council, included] signs warning of the exhibition’s explicit nature ....

A private prosecution has now been launched .... Legal documents claim that the gallery has both offended public decency and breached Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986.

The maximum penalty for outraging public decency is six months’ imprisonment and a £5,000 fine.

The documents claim that the foot-high sculpture was ‘offensive and disgusting’ and ‘likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to Christians and those of other faiths’.

Legal experts said yesterday that the hearing would be the first test of public decency legislation since the Government scrapped Britain’s ancient blasphemy laws in May....

The prosecution has been launched by Emily Mapfuwa, 40, an NHS administrator from Brentwood, Essex, who read about the exhibition in newspapers. ‘I don’t think this gallery would insult Muslims in this way, so why Christians?’ she said....

I think this is pretty vulgar stuff, but should clearly be protected against legal punishment. It would be in the U.S., and it ought to be in other democracies; religions and religious figures are proper subjects for debate and commentary, both rational verbal debate and commentary, and the subtle commentary that can be offered by art.

And I think the Supreme Court was right in Cohen v. California to rejct the argument that some commentary can be barred with no free speech problems on the grounds that it's vulgar, or offensive because of its form rather than its content: There are no legally administrable lines -- at least of the sort that are likely to survive pressure for expansion -- that would distinguish impermissibly vulgar criticism from permissible criticism. I hope England courts reject the complaint. (Whatever one might say about the propriety of huge discretionary grants going to galleries that include offensive speech, the issue here is criminal punishment, not withdrawal of funds.)

It also seems to me that this helps illustrate the force of censorship envy. When speech hostile or insulting towards one religion or symbol is suppressed by government action (as has been urged by many in Europe and Canada with regard to the Mohammed cartoons), or by self-censorship in the face of threatened violence, what happens when other groups are similarly offended? Their sense of outrage -- and of entitlement to similar suppressive power -- is increased, because they are now outraged by the perceived unequal treatment as well as by the original offense.

Then, either the other speech will be suppressed, too, in which the scope of speech restrictions (again, either legal restrictions or restrictions prompted by fear of violence) increases. Or the other speech won't be suppressed, in which case the offended groups will become even more offended -- and then an attempt to prevent offense and maintain social harmony (which is how the original restriction is often justified) will have exacerbated offense and reduce social harmony. That's true, as I argued, about flagburning bans; and it's true about bans and other coercive restrictions on insulting representation of religious symbols.

"Confraternity of Catholic Clergy" Calls for Punishment of Blasphemy in the U.S.:

From their press release, I learned that University of Minnesota Professor P.Z. Myers, author of the Pharyngula blog, has deliberately destroyed a consecrated host (and, Myers' post says, apparently a Koran as well), apparently as a protest against what he sees as the irrationality and magical thinking of religion (or at least of some religions).

Now I wouldn't have heard of this, and wouldn't be telling you about this, were it not for finding the Confraternity's press release:

The Confraternity of Catholic Clergy (a national association of 600 priests & deacons) respond to the sacrilegious and blasphemous desecration of the Holy Eucharist by asking for public reparation. We ask all Catholics of Minnesota and of the entire nation to join in a day of prayer and fasting that such offenses never happen again.

We find the actions of University of Minnesota (Morris) Professor Paul Myers reprehensible, inexcusable, and unconstitutional. His flagrant display of irreverence by profaning a consecrated Host from a Catholic church goes beyond the limit of academic freedom and free speech.

The same Bill of Rights which protect freedom of speech also protect freedom of religion. The Founding Fathers did not envision a freedom FROM religion, rather a freedom OF religion. In other words, our nation's constitution protects the rights of ALL religions, not one and not just a few. Attacking the most sacred elements of a religion is not free speech anymore than would be perjury in a court or libel in a newspaper.

Lies and hate speech which incite contempt or violence are not protected under the law. Hence, inscribing Swastikas on Jewish synagogues or publicly burning copies of the Christian Bible or the Muslim Koran, especially by a faculty member of a public university, are just as heinous and just as unconstitutional. Individual freedoms are limited by the boundaries created by the inalienable rights of others. The freedom of religion means that no one has the right to attack, malign or grossly offend a faith tradition they personally do not have membership or ascribe allegiance.

The Chancellor of the University refused to reprimand or censure the teacher, who ironically is a Biology Professor. One fails to see the relevance of the desecration of a Catholic sacrament to the science of Biology. Were Myers a Professor of Theology, there would have been at least a presumption of competency to express religious opinions in a classroom. Yet, for a scientist to ridicule and show utter contempt for the most sacred and precious article of a major world religion, is inappropriate, unprofessional, unconstitutional and disingenuous.

A biologist has no business 'dissing' any religion, rather, they should be busy teaching the scientific discipline they were hired to teach. Tolerating such behavior by university officials is equally repugnant as it lends credibility to the act of religious hatred. We also pray that Professor Myers contritely repent and apologize.

This is of course quite wrong in its statement of the law, and in its application to the law. I take it they use "unconstitutional" to mean "constitutionally unprotected," rather than its more normal meaning of "violative of the constitution"; only government actions can be unconstitutional (with very few exceptions that can be relevant here). But "hate speech which incite[s] contempt" is fully constitutionally protected.

In narrow circumstances, speech that incites violence is unprotected, but these circumstances (intent and likelihood that the speech will cause imminent violence against its target) are not applicable here. Lies about factual matters are often unprotected, when they're about particular people. But it's hard to see any "lies" in Prof. Myers' action, unless one stretches the term to mean "expressive behavior that I think are contrary to the Truth as revealed by God," but there's nothing constitutionally unprotected about that broad category.

The analogies are also logically weak, and undefended: Inscribing a swastika on a Jewish synagogue is a trespass to someone else's property. Burning one's own copy of the Bible, the Koran, or a consecrated host is not. Perjury and libel are punishable as false statements of fact; blasphemy is offensive expression of opinion.

And the assertion that "A biologist has no business 'dissing' any religion" takes a mighty narrow of view of "business." A biologist is also a citizen, who is entitled to participate in theological debate just as are nonbiologists. I take it that the clergy believe that commenting on moral, social, and religious questions is part of their "business"; I would think that the rest of us have the same rights on this score that they do.

But beyond that, while one could operate on the view that science and religion inhabit different realms and thus aren't contradictory, one could also take the view that certain views of some religions (whether about supernatural forces generally or the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, transsubstantiation when taken seriously, and the like) are unscientific and undermine the progress of science -- just as one could take the view that certain views of some scientists (for instance, the insistence on material explanations for phenomena, or the endorsement of the theory of evolution, or the rejection of the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and the like) are antireligious. There's an important debate out there about religion and science, and neither the criminal law nor government universities ought to suppress it.

But more broadly, this further illustrates that "blasphemy must be punished by the government" thinking is alive and well in America. I hope that the Confraternity is a fringe group, but I'm afraid that their beliefs on this are hardly a fringe belief. If a Confraternity of Muslim Imams argued that the Mohammed cartoons, or stepping on the name of Allah, should be governmentally punished -- either by firings from a university professorship, or by criminal punishment -- many of us would condemn their views. I think we should likewise condemn the views of the Confraternity.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. "Confraternity of Catholic Clergy" Calls for Punishment of Blasphemy in the U.S.:
  2. Censorship Envy in England: