I confess that this entry is more of a plea for input than anything else. Jacques Berlinerblau, author of a new book on secularism and religious freedom, recently made two disparate comments on a local radio show that together offer some insight into his views of the relationship between freedom of speech and freedom of religion (I think). Religion is often, he remarked, a very good thing in the public sphere, and it has done a lot of good for society. But sometimes it gets out of hand, when religion shows its “dark side,” we have take some sort of action. “A good secular government,” to Berlinerblau, doesn’t support religion under all circumstances. Rather “it takes a much more intelligent and nuanced approach [to the question of religion, and says…‘We need the FBI to monitor that’” when the dark side appears. In discussing freedom of speech, however, in the context of the recent video that sparked protests throughout the Islamic world, we simply have to allow the freedom to insult, as it were. It is highly unfortunate that such videos exist, Berlinerblau acknowledged, but we cannot let the government get into the business of “refereeing” speech.
I don’t want to make this a post about Professor Berlinerblau’s views; in all fairness these were off-the-cuff remarks on a radio show, not excerpts from his book. What I do want to call attention to is the necessirty of choosing where to place restrictions – on speech, on religion, on both, or on neither. Berlinerblau is onto something when he acknowledges that some limits must be imposed, but to him, it would seem, religion should perhaps be more carefully monitored than speech. And again, a disclaimer: he didn’t expand on when and how FBI intervention should occur with religion. Furthermore, he acknowledged that fighting words and yelling ‘fire!’ in a theater are not protected speech, so limits exist on both sides. Still, the FBI should monitor threatening religious groups but not potentially inflammatory speech. But, well, why?
To complicate matters, we can also throw in a competing conception of religious freedom. Many in the Arab world have expressed a view of religious freedom that goes a step further than, ehem, mere FBI surveillance. According to a recent New York Times article, the editor of a Coptic Christian newspaper expressed approbation over the protest, at least “if it had stayed peaceful.” To him – notably, not a Muslim, but also not a Westerner – it may be perfectly reasonable to place restrictions on speech in the name of religious freedom, albeit a particular and very different conception of religious freedom than we typically hold in America. The Times article expressed it as “the right of a community, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish, to be free from grave insult to its identity and values” (emphasis added).
So here we are: to Berlinerblau, we should monitor religion but save pretty much all speech. To the Coptic newspaper editor – at least if we extrapolate his views (perhaps unfairly, but for the sake of discussion) – we should monitor speech to save religion. This taps into the tension between communal religious freedom (libertas ecclesiae) and individual freedom (libertas personae), as well, of course, so for the moment I’ll stop and simply ask: any thoughts? And given that the American conception of religious freedom is heavily weighted towards libertas personae, to what extent can we expect to deploy it as a universal human right?