Tag: free speech

Blasphemy Laws Are an Admission of Failure

The Washington Post feature “On Faith” today discusses Ireland’s new, profoundly misguided blasphemy law. Blasphemers there can now be fined up to $35,000. That’s a lot of money for a few little words.

Atheist Ireland is testing – and protesting – the law by publishing blasphemous quotations like the following:

“Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.”

“Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him.”

“May Allah curse the Jews and Christians for they built the places of worship at the graves of their prophets.”

“Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

They are, respectively, from Jesus, Jesus, Muhammad, and Benedict XVI.

Maybe it’s an American thing, but the Post apparently couldn’t find any panelists to defend the law. These folks are all professional wordsmiths, of course, and these tend to be most supportive of the freedoms that they depend on the most. As I noted in my recent Policy Analysis, those who are most easily offended, and who value free speech the least, tend to gravitate not to newspapers, but to governments (and university administrations). That’s where the power is.

Susan Jacoby, for whom I have the utmost respect, even calls the law Pythonesque, likening it to the Ministry of Silly Walks. Of course, there’s this as well:

Blasphemy laws are oddities, because they concede an awful lot of emotional power to the blasphemer. They tell the world: My feelings are so very fragile. Or perhaps they say: My god is so very weak – so weak that he needs state protection against other gods, or even against mere potty-mouthed humans. Either way, it’s an embarrassing admission, but hardly the business of government. If your god can’t take the heat, he’s hardly a god at all.

Jesus and Mo put it very well indeed:


Adding Free Speech Insult to Property Rights Injury

My friend and former law firm colleague Mark Sigmon – who co-authored Cato’s brief in the New Haven firefighters case – is representing a man facing daily fines for displaying a large political message on his house.

David Bowden was upset about the way he had been treated by the town of Cary, NC, regarding damage to his property during a road-widening project.  This past July, Bowden hired someone to paint “Screwed By The Town of Cary” on the front of his house.  A few weeks ago, the town gave Bowden seven days to remove the sign or face daily fines – $100 for the first day, $250 for the second, $500 for each subsequent day – for violating a local sign ordinance. That’s when Mark, who’s affiliated with the ACLU of North Carolina, filed a lawsuit on Bowden’s behalf.   The complaint alleges that the town violated Bowden’s rights to free speech and to petition his government under the First Amendment and similar provisions of North Carolina’s constitution.

While the facts of this case are a bit colorful – and I’m sure Mark is enjoying the notoriety (here’s his appearance on Fox & Friends) – this is no laughing matter.  The town appears to be compounding the damage it did to a resident’s property rights by now violating his rights to speech and political expression. At least now the town has agreed to refrain from enforcing its ordinance and levying fines until the case is resolved – which is essentially a capitulation to Bowden’s request for a preliminary injunction.

For more news on this story go here, here, and here. And you can read the ACLU’s press release and access all the legal pleadings in the case here.

The New Threats to Free Speech

In a new Policy Analysis, Cato Research Fellow Jason Kuznicki examines the ongoing threats to free speech both at home and around the world, from hate-speech laws in the United Kingdom and Canada and university speech codes in the United States, to the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam:

The result is not more happiness, but a race to the bottom, in which aggrieved groups compete endlessly with one another for a slice of government power. Philosopher Robert Nozick once observed that utilitarianism is hard-pressed to banish what he termed utility monsters—that is, individuals who take inordinate satisfaction from acts that displease others. Arguing about who hurt whose feelings worse, and about who needs more soothing than whom, seems designed to discover—or create—utility monsters. We must not allow this to happen.

Instead, liberal governments have traditionally relied on a particular bargain, in which freedom of expression is maintained for all, and in which emotional satisfaction is a private pursuit, not a public guarantee. This bargain can extend equally to all people, and it forms the basis for an enduring and diverse society, one in which differences may be aired without fear of reprisal. Although world cultures increasingly mix with one another, and although our powers of expression are greater than ever before, these are not sound reasons to abandon the liberal bargain. Restrictions on free expression do not make societies happier or more tolerant, but instead make them more fractious and censorious.

Read the whole thing.

Monday Links

  • The politics behind the health care overhaul.
  • Mass corruption in Afghanistan. Malou Innocent: “Washington has already surged into Afghanistan once this year. The United States should not spend more American blood and more of its ever-diminishing financial resources to prop up Karzai’s ineffectual regime.”
  • A government takeover of health care is not pro-choice – for anyone: “Whatever your views on abortion, the fight over abortion in the Obama health plan illustrates perfectly why government should stay out of health care. When the government subsidizes health care, anything you do with that money becomes the voters’ business. And rather than allow for choice between different ways of doing things, the government typically imposes the preferences of the majority — or sometimes, a vocal minority — on everybody.”

A Lesson for Young Journalists, Courtesy of Justice Kennedy

A high school newspaper in Manhattan recently added a new and prestigious editor to its staff: Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.  Adam Liptak of the New York Times reports:

It turns out that Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, widely regarded as one of the court’s most vigilant defenders of First Amendment values, had provided the newspaper, The Daltonian, with a lesson about journalistic independence. Justice Kennedy’s office had insisted on approving any article about a talk he gave to an assembly of Dalton high school students on Oct. 28.

Kathleen Arberg, the court’s public information officer, said Justice Kennedy’s office had made the request to make sure the quotations attributed to him were accurate.

The justice’s office received a draft of the proposed article on Monday and returned it to the newspaper the same day with “a couple of minor tweaks,” Ms. Arberg said. Quotations were “tidied up” to better reflect the meaning the justice had intended to convey, she said.

I’m all for being tidy – and, for all his faults, Kennedy has indeed been friendly to the First Amendment (if not to student speech rights in the “Bong Hits for Jesus” case, Morse v. Frederick) – but public figures don’t usually get to change a story to “better reflect” the intent of their words.

…Frank D. LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, questioned the school’s approach. “Obviously, in the professional world, it would be a nonstarter if a source demanded prior approval of coverage of a speech,” he said. Even at a high school publication, Mr. LoMonte said, the request for prepublication review sent the wrong message and failed to appreciate the sophistication of high school seniors.

While this is hardly a major scandal – and it’s not unusual for justices to exclude the press entirely from public appearances – Kennedy’s use of a judicial editor’s pen does support the general feeling that students don’t always get a fair shake when it comes to their constitutional rights. As I said about an unrelated case in which Cato filed a brief last week (quoting the landmark Tinker case), students shouldn’t have to “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech… at the schoolhouse gate” – especially when a man charged with protecting those rights comes to talk to them about the importance of law and liberty.

H/T: Jonathan Blanks

The Right to Speak in Non-Government-Approved Ways

School officials denied student Pete Palmer the right to wear a shirt supporting John Edwards’s presidential campaign at his Dallas-area high school. They cited the district’s dress code, which prohibited messages on student clothing except for those that supported school activities or district-approved organizations, clubs or teams.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed with the school district that this was a reasonable “time, place and manner” speech restriction. Applying the test from United States v. O’Brien, the court found that the dress code was content- and viewpoint-neutral, and served an important governmental purpose. Palmer now seeks Supreme Court review, citing seemingly contradictory precedents from the Second and Third Circuits and arguing that the regulation here flies in the face of the protection afforded to student speech by the famous case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.

Cato, joined by the Institute for Justice, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the Christian Legal Society, and the National Association of Evangelicals, filed an amicus brief supporting Palmer’s petition and urging the continued use of Tinker. We argue that the Court should clarify its jurisprudence in this area to stop schools from applying broad restrictions in an attempt to avoid controversy and debate—and thereby threaten the very political and religious speech at the First Amendment’s core.

To prevent the chilling of student speech, the Court should solidify Tinker’s central tenet, reaffirming that so long as speech doesn’t “materially and substantially disrupt” the educational process, students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

The case is Palmer v. Waxahachie Independent School District. The Court will be deciding early in 2010 whether to hear it.

Obama, International Law, and Free Speech

Stuart Taylor has a very good article this week about the Obama administration, international law, and free speech.  This excerpt begins with a quote from Harold Koh, Obama’s top lawyer at the State Department:

“Our exceptional free-speech tradition can cause problems abroad, as, for example, may occur when hate speech is disseminated over the Internet.” The Supreme Court, suggested Koh – then a professor at Yale Law School – “can moderate these conflicts by applying more consistently the transnationalist approach to judicial interpretation” that he espouses.

Translation: Transnational law may sometimes trump the established interpretation of the First Amendment. This is the clear meaning of Koh’s writings, although he implied otherwise during his Senate confirmation hearing.

In my view, Obama should not take even a small step down the road toward bartering away our free-speech rights for the sake of international consensus. “Criticism of religion is the very measure of the guarantee of free speech,” as Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School, wrote in an October 19 USA Today op-ed.

Even European nations with much weaker free-speech traditions than ours were reportedly dismayed by the American cave-in to Islamic nations on “racial and religious stereotyping” and the rest.

Read the whole thing.