Saturday, December 04, 2010

'Anti-free speech rally at the courthouse today! All speakers welcome!' (And an un-Merry Christmas to you, too.)

It's that time of year again: which is to say, the time when non-Christians and total nonbelievers transform from their usually passive selves to vocal and, sometimes, litigious opponents of all things Christmas. We're seeing this here in eastern PA. The city of Philadelphia, in the personage of mayor Michael Nutter, initially decided to rename its festive and traditional "Christmas Village" display, outside City Hall, "Holiday Village"and then reversed itself within 48 hours. (The breakneck, back-and-forth mood swings in this drama perfectly capture the schizoid nature of society's feelings on the matter.) Also, not far from Philly, Chester County has decided to bar atheists from putting up their own, cheeky "tree of knowledge"which touts a secular world-view and includes recommended readingalongside the official tree, the expected nativity scenes and the like outside the county courthouse. Closer to home, there have been minor skirmishes of a similar nature in Allentown and Bethlehem (and could there possibly be a more ironic venue for such a skirmish than a town called Bethlehem?).

This is another one of those imbroglios where I'm not at all sure how I feel. By now you know my general thinking on free speech, and my melancholia over the progressive loss of same throughout America. But does "free speech" imply that a person ought be allowed to blithely crap all over any and every occasion that's important and/or meaningful to his or her neighbors? Does it mean that a minority of one can, if he or she so chooses, suck all the joy out of something for a vast majority of hundreds or thousands or millions? As you're waiting with your kids or grandkids to see Santa, do you want to also see a man next to the line holding the following sign?:

And if the Christmas motif mucks things up, let me ask the question a different way: If you were spending your life savings to create a wonderful wedding for your daughter, would you want some overzealous, sign-bearing advocate for gay marriage to camp outside your event, insist on insinuating himself into the background of all the photos you hoped to take in that pretty park near the church, etc.? Is that a legitimate price we pay as a society for having free speech?

Once again, those are not rhetoricals. I'm honestly askin'.

* As a practical matter, anyone carrying such a sign would almost surely be run out by mall security, and their right to do so would be upheld. But that's not the point. How do we feel about this?


RevRon's Rants said...

I'll honestly answer. If someone took it upon themselves to ruin a day as special as one of my kids' wedding with their "issues," my response would be fairly direct. I figure the repercussions from a first-offense assault charge would fade to irrelevance pretty quickly, and be outlasted by the unmarred memories of the special day. I'd most likely get deferred adjudication anyway. :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: OK...and I agree with you. I'd almost certainly have the same reaction; and in fact, I'd probably "guide" the guy with the sign away from Santa's Workshop long before mall security arrived. But glibness aside, then we appear to be saying that their free speech would invite a violent response from us. So is free speech really free if you get punched out for exercising it? Or is our allegiance to free speech more theoretical than actual? Because let's face it, it's easy to stand up for free speech when no one is being hurt, inconvenienced or offended.

This is why I go 'round and 'round.

RevRon's Rants said...

I'm all for free speech, but recognize that freedom comes at a cost. If my free speech harms another, I have to accept the fact that there might be repercussions. By the same token, if someone else's exercise of free speech harms me or someone I care for, my response would constitute my own exercise of freedom of expression.
We each just have to decide whether our exercise of free speech is worth the cost.

Dimension Skipper said...

How 'bout "free speech zones" a la W.? ...Sort of like free speech, but with a built-in pre-existing restraining order.

namowal said...

Steve, I don't think you're talking about 'free speech' as is protected by the bill of rights. I have every right to walk down the street and shout about how much I hate the president or the government or any other entity, and whatever I say is not a *crime*. But if I walk up to you and say some disgusting things about your mom, you can tell me to STFU, you can hit me, or whatever. By doing so, you are not taking away my right to free speech. If the government locks me up for saying something disgusting about your mom, they are taking away my right to free speech.
Free speech only gives us protection from the government; it doesn't guarantee that no one will have a violent reaction to what we say.
I guess I don't see what the conundrum is with this one.

Tyro said...

How do we feel about Christian proselytizing during Ramadan or Hannukah? Does it raise difficult questions where our values conflict or do we simply not notice or think that these conflicts are inevitable and should be tolerated calmly?

I really don't know what is meant to be so shocking that this sign should make us question freedom of speech. It's a minority group simply asserting that they don't accept a story of, let's face it, magic. It's quiet (literally and metaphorically), not interrupting anyone, and not placed in any special religious or social venue. I think the overreactions do a great job of showing how important it is for some groups to challenge the Christian dominance in the public sphere so that anyone public disbelief is somehow equated (or compared) with Fred Phelps or crazy people trying to upset children.

And on that note, can we please discuss issues without resorting to the plea "won't someone please think of the children!!!!!" I don't believe that you would apply this criteria to other forms of speech and it does rather equate the belief in Santa with the belief in Jesus and God. If you really believe that then how can you call yourself a Christian and if you don't believe it then surely you must think kids can somehow survive with their religious beliefs intact only if they're never ever challenged.

Incidentally, did you know that some Christian groups have threatened to boycott buses that run atheist ads? One bus driver walked off the job when his bus had an ad which said merely that millions of people were "good without God". Where are the people that are boycotting buses because of Christian ads? No one is doing this, not even atheists or Muslims. Where are the Christians who are picketing to remove religious displays on government facilities because it violates church & state? Again, no where. It seems hugely hypocritical for people to discover that religious speech is problematic and upsetting ONLY when it's another group trying to exercise the same rights they've asserted for generations.

Tyro said...

Ron & Steve - I apologize about the wedding comment. I forgot that Steve singled this out explicitly. double apologies as Phelps and his seedy mob are famous for being Christian and for picketing funerals and otherwise private affairs.

If it was me, I would hope to respond as so many other groups have done and arrange a mocking counter demonstration like the Comicon group who picketed in costume with signs from their favourite fictional superheroes. Counter-speech (especially if humorous) is a lot better IMHO than Ron's slug-fest which will let Phelps play the wounded martyr.

Steve Salerno said...

I think Namowal makes a good point about the distinction between free speech, as reserved for the public (and press) in the First Amendment, and free speech as the term is used more generally. For the record, I have addressed this distinction several times here on the blog: While the government may not be able to restrict my right to stand on a corner and shout "IBM sucks!", my employer certainly has the right to issue that restriction, if my employer is IBM. It always amazes me when people who have been disciplined or even fired for saying ill-advised things come back with the rebuttal, "But the company is violating my right to free speech!" You have few (if any) such rights, in the workplace, as long as an employer doesn't drift into areas that are federally protected by other statutes.

Also, some of the remarks here seem to bespeak a common misunderstanding of the (admittedly gauzy) concept of "fighting words." That doctrine does not contemplate scenarios in which a person is allowed to launch a physical attack in response to something another party merely said. E.g. "You said something about my Mama, so I'm entitled to punch you out!" There are very, very few scenarios in jurisprudence that condone preemptive violence.

Which is why I repeat: It strikes me as sophistry to say, "Yeah, I believe in free speech...but if you say something I don't like, you can expect to get hit." That's not really believing in free speech.

Tyro: I'm not sure what you're apologizing for. What did you say? But to address your comments more generally, no, I don't think bullying is any more laudable when it's perpetrated by Christian groups. I was teaching at a local college when some midwest wingnut, whose name I forget, rolled onto campus with his anti-abortion ads, which depicted graphic images of aborted fetuses, and I thought that was reprehensible. Several female students came into my classes crying; one had to leave the room shortly after arriving in order to throw up. But is it free speech? I guess it is. And if I get so enraged by it that I go up and pummel the guy, I have to know that I'm going to face consequences, ad Ron suggests.

roger o'keefe said...

This whole discussion mystifies me. What ever happened to common decency and respecting other people and their beliefs? I don't understand why an atheist feels he needs to make his point in front of my Christmas display or why someone stumping for gay rights has to ruin my daughter's wedding. There is a time and a place for things.

Live and let live. That may be a higher ethic than free speech per se. Once upon a time we actually used to believe in that and we acted accordingly.

Tyro said...

I don't understand why an atheist feels he needs to make his point in front of my Christmas display

Which atheists are busting into your house to argue with you in front of your Christmas displays?

I know many groups who are trying to put up some counter-nativity displays but these are not your Christmas display, these are public, governmental displays which are not legally allowed to promote religion. The fact is that many governmental groups have been doing this for years and so some groups have begun to call attention to this fact. Since this is a part of the US constitution and not doing anyone any harm, I would expect to see more support rather than thinking it's okay for constitutional violations to occur as long as the Christians benefit. I think they should either all go down or be a public forum where all views are expressed (which is also the view that courts have taken). Why this grudging acceptance of free speech or church-state separation instead of patriotic support?

Last year, the atheist displays were repeatedly stolen and vandalized yet I see little mention or outrage. If nativity displays were treated the same, does anyone believe it would be treated with the same casualness? These are cases where people really did vandalize property to silence religious views and we barely hear a peep.

RevRon's Rants said...

Gotta agree with Roger on this one. Our Constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of speech does allow a person to go well beyond the bounds of civility and decency, but I think it ludicrous to assert that such protection infers some cloak of nobility to uncivil behavior. An asshole by any other name...

As to whether my own response to the hypothetical situation would glorify the individual's alleged victimhood, that is frankly irrelevant to me. Besides, anyone who would feel that the person had been treated unfairly would be unlikely to hold me in high regard, anyway. I'll try and cope... :-)

namowal said...

A general theme that seems to be emerging from the comments is that there is difference between having a right and the consequences of exercising that right.
Freedom of speech only guarantees that you won't go to jail for saying awful things at inappropriate times. If you're a jerk, though, society is going to treat you like you're a jerk. Freedom of speech does not protect you from other people thinking you're a horrible person and treating you as such.
I think that's exactly how it should be.

Steve Salerno said...

Nam: Fair enough. And probably closest to the truth. I'm still not at all sure how I feel about this, however, because, for example, if the anti-abortion fanatic shows up at the college with his graphic billboards on graduation day, that day is still ruined. So is a wedding, as described in the post. Etc. I guess those are prices we must bear in order to have free speech. I just wonder sometimes if there isn't a better mechanism for allowing people to get their points across--as is their right--without having to ruin things for (almost) everyone else.

Maybe what it calls for (as prosaic as this sounds) is just a bit more respect for the feelings of others? And yet people with minority opinions and agendas will say that if they don't make waves--if they don't make a big stink that causes great discomfort, and even provokes a lot of outrage--then no one pays attention.

RevRon's Rants said...

Sounds good, Steve, until you realize that the very POINT of some people's exercise in free speech is to ruin another's day.

Tyro said...


I think you got it. If you don't make waves, the status quo remains so anyone that seeks change needs to shake things up.

I think it's always worth asking whether the reaction is all proportionate to the provocation. We're talking about people getting right in our faces and disrupting private family functions but what is really happening? A group put up a billboard in a commuting line, they didn't vandalize your property, take your nativity display, disrupt your property, upset your private social functions or scream, shout or even speak to you. It's just a billboard. That this gets on the news, provokes blowhards like Bill Donahue and gets otherwise reasonable people to talk about protecting the children, well, it makes you think about what vile, despicable, criminal sentiment could possibly result in such a reaction. Was it calling for people to be hurt, was it insulting? No, it was a bland statement that said some people think that, to paraphrase Stephen Colbert, three wise men can follow a star in the desert and find a manger to bestow gifts upon a god-child born of a virgin might be a myth.

If you think that it's real, it can't possibly does any more harm than some kook posting a billboard promoting a Flat Earth. That so many people are unable to laugh it off seems to say we need more, not less, speech. The truth will hopefully win out one way or another.

Steve Salerno said...

This is exactly the situation I had in mind:

So how do we feel about this?

Tyro said...


The Phelps clan are interesting but shutting them up (legally or physically) makes them martyrs and creates a dangerous precedent. Much better is how these groups have handled them:

Instead of treating them like some serious threat or elevating their brand of lunacy, these groups treat them like the (hateful) joke they are.

Incidentally, did you know how Superman took down the KKK? For realz. The Superman radio show made a mockery of the KKK, casting them as a bunch of laughable loons and did serious damage to the organization in the process.

So yeah - the Phelps clan are despicable, disreputable, hateful people but I fully support their right to say their brand of idiocy.