Offensive Speech in NYC

Living in New York City, one develops a taste for irony. This past week, residents were treated to an unusually good display. In remarks at the UN on Tuesday, President Barack Obama gave an eloquent defense of American free speech principles, which prohibit government from restricting religiously offensive speech as long as there is no threat of imminent violence. Government may state its own views, however, and President Obama roundly condemned, on behalf of the US Government, “The Innocence of Muslims,” that “crude and disgusting video” that has “sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world.” In a widely quoted passage, the President declared,

The future must not belong to those who slander the Prophet of Islam.  But to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see in the images of Jesus Christ that are desecrated, or churches that are destroyed, or the Holocaust that is denied.

Now, as it happens, at a swanky gallery near where President Obama was speaking, an exhibition of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, the infamous photograph of a crucifix submerged in a glass of urine, was under way. Neither President Obama nor anyone else in his administration, as far as I know, thought that credibility required them to condemn this particular example of religiously offensive speech. Why not? Because, of course, nobody was complaining about it, much less rioting. (That’s not quite right: Bill Donohue of the Catholic League objected). Although Piss Christ caused outrage a couple of decades ago, America has moved on, and most Christians shrug it off as another anti-Christian stunt that our aesthetic elites so enjoy. Anyway, American Christians have figured out that government condemnation of religiously offensive speech doesn’t extend to this sort of thing. Indeed, if memory serves, Serrano received a government grant.

And then there was another episode. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which manages the city’s subways, this week began running ads by a pro-Israel group referring to Islamists as “savages.” A Muslim woman tried to deface one of the ads; someone tried physically to restrain her. Imminent violence! In response, the MTA announced a new policy. It will no longer run ads — like the one in question, presumably — that it “reasonably foresees would imminently incite or provoke violence or other immediate breach of the peace.”

Let’s try a thought experiment. Let’s assume the MTA runs an ad, like this one the New York Times ran earlier this year, advising Catholics to leave their church on account of perverted priests and other outrages. Let’s assume further that an offended Catholic tries to deface one of the ads, which leads to a shoving match in a subway station. Would the MTA take the ads down? Or would the vandal be prosecuted and lectured on the need for free expression in a pluralistic society? I’m pretty sure I know the answer.

Now, you might say, there’d be a reason for treating offensive, anti-Muslim speech differently from offensive, anti-Catholic speech. Catholics are well represented in American life; Muslims are a suspected minority, vulnerable to discrimination in a way Catholics are not. I’m not sure how true that is in New York City, actually. But, anyway, if discouraging discrimination is the reason for restricting offensive speech, we should say so. We should say that we’re trying to protect minorities, not religious sensibilities. That degree of intellectual honesty would certainly make the argument more “credible,” to use the President’s word.

There’s no reason to assume that the right to free expression must cover religiously offensive speech in all circumstances. Other Western democracies limit such speech and seem to get along fine. In practice, however, a ban on religiously offensive speech in America would not likely afford equal protection to all religions. That’s not a fair or workable solution, at all.

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One response to “Offensive Speech in NYC

  1. Exceptionally well put.

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