Sunday, May 17, 2015

Moral Restraints on the Freedom of Speech

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            In April posters appeared on NYC subways and buses with a young man in a checkered headscarf and the words, Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah, followed by That’s His Jihad.  What’s Yours?  It was not sponsored by radical Muslims but by the pro-Israel American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), headed by Pamela Geller.  The Metropolitan Transportation Authority tried to prohibit the ads, but a U.S. District judge ruled with Geller and held that the ads were protected by the First Amendment freedom of speech.

            A few weeks later two Muslim gunmen were killed after they opened fire at a Texas competition to draw the prophet Muhammad.  The event was sponsored by Geller’s AFDI, and like the NYC posters it was considered protected by the freedom of speech, even though violence could have been anticipated.  Because of these and other anti-Muslim activities sponsored by the AFDI, the Southern Poverty Law Center considers it a hate group.

            The activities of Geller’s AFDI have certainly pressed the limits of the freedom of speech.  They were clearly intended to antagonize and likely to provoke violence among Muslims who do not have an appreciation of how the freedom of speech allows blasphemy, and it raises the issue of whether there should be limits to the freedom of speech beyond yelling fire in a crowded theater.  But beyond legal arguments, there is the moral responsibility to limit our freedom of expression to avoid offending others.

            The greatest commandment instructs Jews and Christians to love God and to love their neighbors as themselves.  The two commandments were taken from the Hebrew Bible and taught by Jesus as the most important of all commandments, and affirmed by Muslims as a common wordof faith.  The version in Luke’s gospel is the most relevant since in it Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan in answer to the question, Who is my neighbor? In it the good neighbor to the wounded Jew was a Samaritan, who was considered by Jews to be a detested apostate.

            The greatest commandment reflects the primacy of love over law that restrains legal rights with moral responsibilities.  Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have standards of legitimacy as religious norms of what is right, and to be compatible with democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law those religious norms must be voluntary moral standards rather than coercive laws.  That is the case in the libertarian democracies of the West, but not so in the tribal cultures of the Islamic East, where apostasy and blasphemy laws preclude human rights.

            Religions in libertarian democracies must rely on moral restraints to limit the legal right to speak freely.  Christians are admonished to tame the tongue: “It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison…Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.” (James 3:8-10)  In like manner Michael Gerson has characterized blasphemous acts that are protected by the freedom of speech as immoral and urged restraint in exercising the freedom of speech:

There is no contradiction between First Amendment absolutism and a moral commitment to the cultivation of mutual respect among the Abrahamic faiths (and outside them).  Just as there is no inconsistency between the vigorous defense of the United States against terrorists and a respectful engagement with Islam.  They are, in fact, inseparable.

            Gerson asserts that “high profile, attention-seeking acts of blasphemy” directed against Islam can undermine U.S. efforts against al-Qaeda and ISIS, since those terrorist groups “…thrive on the narrative of West vs. Islam.”  He notes that “both Judaism and Christianity have made progress over the centuries…interpreting their violent scriptural texts and finding resources of respect for the other.”  That progress culminated in the Enlightenment of the 17th century in the West when reason gained an equal voice with religion and put human rights and man-made law over religious law, but that did not happen in the Islamic East where Shari’a continues to reign supreme.  See

            David Ignatius sees psychology rather than religion at the heart of Mideast violence and recommends freedom as “the most potent weapon against the ‘viral’ jihadist narrative on Arab social media.”  Freedom is the same weapon needed to counter religious fundamentalism.  See

            The freedoms of religion and speech are the best antidotes for Islamist extremism, whether its roots are psychological or religious—or most likely, both; but as illustrated by AFDI those freedoms can be abused and actually incite such extremism.  The problem can be resolved if people of faith restrain their legal right to the freedom of expression with their moral responsibility to love God and their neighbors as themselves—even their unbelieving neighbors.  

Notes and References to Resources:

See Blog/Archives at the following blogs related to this topic: Faith and Freedom, posted December 15, 2014; Religion, Violence and Military Legitimacy, posted December 29, 2014; The Greatest Commandment, posted January 11, 2015; Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, posted January 18, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is there a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today? posted January 25, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, posted February 22, 2015; The Kingdom of God, Politics and the Church, posted March 15, 2015; God and Country: Resolving Conflicting Concepts of Sovereignty, March 29, 2015; Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, posted April 12,2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, posted May 10, 2015.      

On the central role of legitimacy in faith, see the Introduction at pages 10, 11 in The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: TheHeart of Legitimacy.

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