Free Speech: The Last Right to be Lost

Free Speech: The Last Right to be Lost


Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic

     Observing the erosion of individual rights in contemporary culture, someone once said that after all other rights were lost, freedom of speech would be the last to go. Developments in the Western world, including the U.S., in recent years are making this increasingly evident. So-called human rights commissions in Canada have hounded pastors for preaching the immorality of homosexual practice. In a celebrated case, Pastor Ake Green in Sweden was convicted and sentenced to prison for an anti-homosexuality sermon (the Swedish Supreme Court later overturned his conviction). The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation seeks laws in various countries to outlaw criticism of Islam, and several European countries have enacted laws to prosecute people for “vilifying” Islam. Recently, in New Jersey, a Rutgers student was convicted of a “hate crime” for capturing his roommate’s same-sex encounter on his computer’s web-cam. After that, even some homosexualist activists expressed concern that free speech was being threatened by some applications of these laws. A street preacher in Britain was arrested for proclaiming biblical teaching about homosexuality. In Philadelphia, the birthplace of American liberty, Christian demonstrators at a pro-homosexual festival were arrested and threatened with forty years in prison. Organizations such as Media Matters try to shut down radio talk show hosts they don’t agree with by pressuring their advertisers to withdraw their support. Bernard Lewis, the famous historian of the Arabs, was prosecuted—and received a nominal fine—in a French court for arguing in his scholarly writing that there was no firm evidence that the government of the Ottoman Empire was behind the massacre of large numbers of Armenians in 1915. Congress made it a federal crime for someone to falsely claim to have been a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient (believe it or not, it is actually the FBI that is in charge of investigating this). Even if prosecutions or other legal censure fails, the effect of such actions is a kind of self-censorship. Yale University Press would have faced no governmental retaliation for keeping depictions of the famous Danish newspaper cartoons of Mohammed in a book about the case, but removed them for fear of violence. (The Press apparently failed to see the oddity of book about the controversy without letting the readers see what is was that caused it in the first place.)

     There have been a multitude of such cases in the Western world, many of which are driven by advocacy groups. What they often represent is a pushing aside of traditional liberties in the interest of ersatz rights, usually involving sex and reproduction. Free speech gives way to the whims of sexual “identity groups.” This is especially seen with homosexualism. Actually, the entire range of what in this country are First Amendment freedoms are now threatened: speech, religion, assembly, and association. For example, we see the HHS mandate on contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients, New Jersey’s attempt some years ago—narrowly struck down by the Supreme Court—to impose homosexual scoutmasters on the Boy Scouts of America, and New Mexico’s fining of Christian photographers for refusing their services to a lesbian “wedding.”

     The novel “rights” that are trumping time-honored rights are really nothing more than wants. They are wants rooted in what are often the lowest and most destructive of passions—as Plato’s discussion of lust in The Republic makes clear. We see today the mad culmination of the modern project of liberating the passions—and a new repression brought about by some who want everyone else’s approval for it.

     Hardly anyone believes that the law can permit absolutely free speech, that under no circumstances can it ever be restrained. The unsettling fact about this new wave of suppressing speech, however, is that it concerns political speech and even religious speech. If any kind of speech is protected, it certainly is this. It is also troubling that, especially with the human relations commissions in Canada, the mere claim from someone in a protected group of being “offended” is enough to shut down speech and punish it. If that is the basis for suppression, then free speech means nothing. I have at times thought that group libel was a legitimate legal notion, such as was seen in the 1952 Supreme Court case of Beauharnais v. Illinois. In an age of identity politics, however, it poses a danger, especially when the groups that would claim they are attacked may really be angling for favored status, power, and the subversion of sound morality—and exhibit a marked intolerance themselves.

     While it’s true that one has no natural right to lie, cases like the Congressional Medal of Honor one underscore the confused understanding about law these days. This was not the kind of thing that historically was addressed by either the criminal or civil law. If the law now is to be used to stop lying of all kinds—instead of just when under oath in a judicial proceeding—we’ll see the same suppression because of personal offense as is done by the identity politics groups. Also if scholars cannot have disagreements about points of historical interpretation as in the Lewis case, then expect scholarship to dry up. Expect the timid intellects that John Stuart Mill, who was a hero of liberals of another age, was fearful would develop.

     That the Church embraces free speech is made clear when the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church calls information as “among the principal instruments of democratic participation” (#414). She also makes it clear that it, like other rights (even religious liberty), is not unconditional. Liberty may not degenerate into license, and must not be used to attack religious or moral truth or damage the common good (see Libertas Praestantissimum #42-43). What is now happening is that the homosexualist movement and other promoters of sexual libertinism are trying to suppress speech used in the responsible way the Church speaks of, while tolerating only speech that confirms or at least does not question licentious behavior. They are joined by Islamist groups who oppose free speech if it forces them to subject their theological conclusions to serious public questioning and debate, even the parts of them that bespeak intolerance. The Church has called for respect for Islam, but Islamists have hardly responded in kind. Even the regular Islamic authorities in Moslem-majority countries rebuff the efforts of Catholic bishops to seek dialogue.

     The current efforts to suppress free speech—whether by homosexualists, sexual liberationists, or Islamists—seem to betray a common purpose: upending traditional Christian theological and moral beliefs and destroying what’s left of Christian culture.

Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies at Franciscan University of Steubenville and Co-Founder and President of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

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