Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Bad days for Free Speech

It's been a bad year for freedom of speech. First there was the controversy over the Mohamed cartoons and calls for the cartoonists to be punished (or even executed). Then a Nazi-appologist was jailed for Holocaust denial and the Mayor of London was suspended for a month for making a Nazi-related insult to a reporter.

Even al Qaida can see the problems here. Their number two man issued a statement over the weekend complaining about Europe's hypocracy.
Referring to the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that have been printed in a number of European newspapers, al-Zawahri said: “They did it on purpose and they continue to do it without apologizing, even though no one dares to harm Jews or to challenge Jewish claims about the Holocaust nor even to insult homosexuals.”
To be fair to Europe, the laws in question were passed after WWII to prevent nazis from rising again. Hitler had just conquered more of the world than Napoleon so they had a right to be worried. Also, the laws prevent Holocaust denial but there is nothing on the books to prevent other slanders against Jews. It is fashionable and legal in Europe to compare Israel's treatment of the Palestinians with Hitler's treatment of the Jews.

It's time for these laws to be repealed. Any appeal that Hitler had is irrelevant 60+ years after his death. The conditions that allowed the nazis to seize power in the 1930s just don't exist today. Holocaust denial may be vile, but freedom of speech only counts if it includes vile speech.

In the US, things are more subtle. It was announced a couple of weeks ago that the IRS was investigating a number of churches and non-profit organizations for political involvement. Press reports say that the investigations covered a "full spectrum of political viewpoints". Maybe, but several Ohio churches made the news late last year for filing a complaint over two conservative churches' involvement with politics. One complaint was that they had allowed Ken Blackwell, Ohio Secretary of State and candidate for Governor to address the congregations on specific issues. Considering that one of the complaintants, the Universal Unitarian Church, hosts two advocacy groups, the IRS complaint seems like political intimidation.

This is where it gets tricky. Freedom of speech normally means that you can endorse candidates and issues. Freedom of religion means that the government cannot tell a minister what he can say inside his church. The tricky point is that by giving churches tax-free status, the government asks them to give up a measure of freedom. This becomes a threat if the IRS determines that a church engaged in unsanctioned behaviour for some time. This can lead to huge fines in the form of back-taxes.

A couple of other free-speech issues - Larry Summers was forced to resign as president of Harvard for expressing ideas that were unpopular with the faculty and a high school teacher in Colorado is on leave after ranting at his class.

Summers is remembered for suggesting that the IQ distribution for men might be spread wider than for women with more at the very top and bottom. This was one of four possibilities that he threw out as topics for discussion about why more men go into math-heavy specialties. He also suggested that patriotism was not a dirty word, that it was unbecoming for an institution such as Harvard to engage in anti-semitism over Israel, and that professors such as Cornell West should do some actual research. All of these were positions that would be reasonable, not only to most Americans, but to most Democrats. They were not acceptable to the Harvard faculty.

Finally, Jay Bennish, the high school teacher who was suspended - was this right? Most news stories just mentioned his Bush/Hitler comparison but there was much more to what this teacher said. It was a rant against Bush and the Iraq war, America in general, and even capitalism which he pronounced as anti-humanity. Is Bennish's right to free speech being abridged? No. He is a high school geography teacher. While teachers must be able to include some of their own opinions, they cannot be allowed to substitute the course with a communist indoctrination (at least not without approval of the school board). Bennish was hired to teach geography. This rant and his teaching in general have little to do with that. He is teaching ideology. As a paid employee, Bennish has an obligation to teach the perscribed curriculum. No free speech issues here. The same is true for teachers who want to teach Creation Science or Intellegent Design. As long as they are employees, they have to teach what the school system approves.

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