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.
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.
Rights, especially free expression, are conditional for lots of folks; free
speech is fine, as long as you agree with what is being said.
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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