Combatting free speech

Wednesday , August 01, 2012 - 12:17 PM

Jay Ambrose

In Russia, Vladimir Putin’s government is prosecuting three women for a prayer to toss the president out of office. In the Netherlands and Denmark, officials have been putting people on trial for what they have said about Muslims. In Chicago, San Francisco and Boston, mayors are aiming to stop a restaurant chain from expanding its outlets because the owner does not believe in gay marriage.

Much of the world is still fighting freedom, insisting that either you bow to positions officially deemed right and pure or face sanctions. And yes, there is a significant difference in degree between what’s happening in these different places, but it’s the same tendency in all of them -- something Americans, at least, ought to recognize as a demand for subservient serfdom contrary to all we stand for.

The charge against the Russian women is religiously hostile hooliganism, according to a Reuters account. The Russian Orthodox Church supported Putin’s return to the presidency, and the women -- all in their 20s -- danced on the altar of Christ the Savior Cathedral as a protest prayer. The women say they are anti-authoritarian, not anti-Christian, and in fact want Christian support in their fight against Putin. The top penalty: seven years in prison.

Any normal, balanced, halfway decent human being would say that, at the most, it was slap-on-the-wrist time, not destroy-your-life time, even as a threat. Protests have limits, but so does governmental mayhem.

Defenders of laws against "hate speech" would have you believe that prosecutions can be confined to limited circumstances of clear-cut maliciousness obviously endangering others. That’s not what happens in the real world. Such laws inevitably lead to the harassment of people like Lars Hedegaard, a Danish historian and journalist who had said Muslim men in some parts of the world engage in incestuous rape. The truth of his remarks wasn’t the issue as Hedegaard went through a series of trials in which he was eventually exonerated.

Hedegaard could have gone to prison for two years if found guilty. Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician, faced one year in prison before being found not guilty of hate speech a year ago. He had argued that Islam was taking over his country and worried aloud that the Koran countenanced violence. While he took the anti-libertarian position the Koran should be banned, outlawing his opinions would still be akin to outlawing thought. And while Islam clearly has its peace lovers, a Muslim cleric’s call for Wilders’ beheading served as illustration of his violence claims.

All of these foreign accounts bring us finally to our own land of the less and less free, a place where some are doing their best to shut up think tanks, public commentators and campaign ads that see issues differently from them. Now this: Three mayors oppose the expansion of Chick-fil-A in their cities because, as a matter of religious conviction shared by millions, the owner does not believe in gay and lesbian marriage.

In Chicago, an alderman said a permit for a new restaurant would be denied -- use of government to punish speech -- and Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the firm’s values are not the city’s values although the firm’s owner was not arguing against homosexual mates living together. He was not arguing against their putting together an array of legal agreements comparable to what you find in traditional marriages. He was not arguing the couples could never refer to their relationships as marriages.

While I agree that our society has visited unconscionable hurt on homosexuals and think we are veering toward allowing gay marriage nationally, I also think the basic question is whether we should officially redefine a fundamental institution at a time when it is already in tatters. At the very least, there is nothing alarming about the owner’s stance, and it’s Rahm Emanuel whose values are not those of a new world that has been different from the old in its exceptional devotion to liberty.

Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. Email SpeaktoJay@aol.com.

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