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Taking the First: Free Speech and its Discontents

by Conrad F. Goeringer
March 29, 2020

“I disapprove of what you say, but
I will defend to the death your right
to say it.”

-- Commonly attributed to Voltaire, but likely composed by S.G. Tallentyre, Voltaire In His Letters, 1919

While some of us enthusiastically agree with Voltaire’s sentiments on free expression, few are willing in today’s climate of political rectitude and public religiosity to put such a principle into action. Even in thousands of pages of rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court -- presumably the nation’s guardian of civil liberties and the Bill of Rights -- the quotation appears only once, in the 1976 case YOUNG v. AMERICAN MINI THEATRES. Justices upheld a Detroit statute -- dubbed the “Anti-Skid Row Ordinance” -- that regulated the use and placement of various establishments, including adult theaters.

Many of us will certainly disapprove of what Rev. Kristopher Okwedy of Staten Island, N.Y. has to say about gays. Okwedy operates KeyWord Ministries, an evangelical organization which preaches that homosexual behavior is an “abomination” in the eyes of the Lord. Okwedy recently took his message beyond the pulpit and church doors, and paid a local sign company $2,000 to erect two billboard with anti-gay Biblical quotations. No sooner had the signs gone up than they were suddenly covered over with less contentious messages from Smokey the Bear and McGruff the Crime Dog.

The sign company says that Okwedy’s billboards violated their policy of displaying a phone number and identifying the sponsor of the message. Rev. Okwedy told a local paper that his right to free expression had been violated. “They designed the signs, they knew my name was not there,” Okwedy says.

To apply Voltaire to modern times: as distasteful as what Rev. Okwedy believes and says, will we defend his right to say it?

Civic and religious groups, gay organizations and local politicians quickly spoke out against Okwedy’s billboards. The head of a local gay advocacy center rightly observed that the reverend could have done far more good with his $2,000 had he spent the money on research for an AIDS cure, or humanitarian care for those suffering from advanced HIV. A local city councilman declared that he, too, knew the Bible and the Golden Rule -- “do unto others as you would have them do unto you...”

We should be used to clergy staking out opposite points on view on just about every issue, and invoking one God or another, one Bible verse or another, one prophet, savior, savant or sage or another in support of their position. For every Pat Robertson or Kristopher Okwedy who preaches that homosexuals are sinful and corrupt, there is a liberal congregation that believes their God is more forgiving, open-minded and tolerant. A priest, rabbi or minister may give the last rites to a death row inmate about to executed by the state. Outside prison walls, other religious invoke a selective notion of god or some holy book, and preach that capital punishment is wrong.

Rights, especially free expression, are conditional for lots of folks; free speech is fine, as long as you agree with what is being said.
If there is a God, then he, she or it has done a poor job in conveying a consistent universal message, and finding competent help on planet earth to lead others to it.

Rev. Okwedy’s billboards, though, raise more than the issue of competing deities and doctrines. To their credit, those speaking out against the distasteful and offensive content of the signs did not openly advocate that government intervene to censor the hateful message. Some have called for a boycott of the sign company which takes Okwedy’s money in exchange for promoting a Neanderthal view of gay men and women. Others have organized protests, even a prayer “vigil” which took issue with Rev. Okwedy’s use of the Old Testament book of Leviticus as a source of learned comment on homosexuality, or warned that the billboards might incite physical violence against gays.

Making the situation more ironic are the statements of Okwedy’s supporters. Religious conservatives who agree with the billboards say that the controversy involves free speech. One man, who used a rally in support of the signs as the occasion to announce his candidacy for the U.S. Senate, denounced “the thought police” who presumably want the billboards taken down.

It’s doubtful that those selectively citing the First Amendment and railing against government thought cops would feel the same way about a billboard promoting tolerance for homosexuality, or advertising a movie which “insulted” religion, or even letting women know about abortion services or condoms. Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia announced last year that he was voting against the Religious Liberty Protection Act because it might give certain rights to Wiccan and other religious groups he disagrees with. Rights, especially free expression, are conditional for lots of folks; free speech is fine, as long as you agree with what is being said.

What do we do when someone like Rev. Okwedy pays his money to promote a message that is offensive, demeaning and hateful? This man of the cloth is in larger company; the same question might be asked of David Duke, or Khalid Mohammed. What about dissident political groups? What -- especially if you are New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, or the head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights -- about an art exhibit which may depict religious symbols and faiths in a provocative, even unflattering way?

We always seem adept at coming up with reasons for why a particular book, play, newspaper, piece of artwork, or even a billboard should not be permitted, why government should intervene. There is a virtual smorgasbord of excuses -- perhaps “national security” is at risk, or “the good of society.” “Children” make excellent argument for establishing a censor, especially if a new communications medium like the internet is involved.

What about “religious belief”? John Stossel recently profiled the free speech issue on a special ABC program, which included a segment where Catholic demonstrators were boisterously picketing a controversial exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. No one challenged their right to free speech, of course; but one woman seriously suggested that utterances or anything else which insulted religious belief should not be permitted. She proposed a “board” of religious leaders to ascertain what would fall under the category of blasphemous. Presumably, cops and the courts would do the rest.

Indeed, we seem to entering a phrase in American culture where many people think -- no, make that “feel” -- that “hateful,” or “insulting,” or “degrading” remarks should not be tolerated and protected under the mantle of the First Amendment. Scratch political authoritarians just about anywhere on the political spectrum, and you will likely find an argument justifying censorship of contrary views. Push many religious leaders and groups -- the case of Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses” comes to mind --and you might be surprised to hear why religious beliefs need official protection from criticism, “hurtful” remarks, mockery and blasphemy.

So far, this hasn’t occurred in Staten Island. Rev. Okwedy is reportedly continuing his efforts to erect his anti-gay billboards. Distasteful as they are, the signs appear to have galvanized and encouraged those individuals and groups who preach tolerance and freedom for homosexuals. I say, let Okwedy has his signs. If anyone disagrees, well, put up your own billboards, write a letter to the paper, speak out on talk radio. The best thing to do about bad, offensive and hateful speech is to encourage more, not less speech.

What are you waiting for? Voltaire?

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