Sunday, July 03, 2005

Say what you will 

The Arizona Supreme Court ruled Friday that a newspaper cannot be sued for printing a letter that suggested Americans respond to attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq by going to the nearest mosque and killing the first five Muslims they see.

The high court unanimously held that the letter to the editor was political speech protected by the First Amendment. It threw out a lawsuit accusing the Tucson Citizen of intentionally inflicting emotional distress on residents.

Two Tucson men had sued the Gannett Co. newspaper for unspecified damages after it ran the letter in 2003.

The letter frightened some area Muslims enough to keep their children home from religious schools, and protests poured into the newspaper.

Four days later, the Citizen ran an apology and said the letter's author had written a second letter to clarify that his comments referred only to military actions in combat zones.
Oh, that's alright then.

Whoever wrote the letter is an offensive idiot of the highest order, but the story illustrates how increasingly divergent the United States and the rest of the West are on the matter of freedom of speech. While suggestions of personal and deadly violence still seem to be protected in the US under the First Amendment, even mild criticism is falling foul of anti-vilification laws everywhere else. Take the latest fiasco in Australia's southern state of Victoria, involving Daniel Scot and Danny Nalliah, pastors with the Catch the Fires Pentecostal church:
Without [the new anti-vilification] laws, these men would have quietly given their church seminar on jihad three years ago to 250 fellow worshippers and none of us would have even known. But the laws changed everything.

They inspired the Equal Opportunity Commission to urge Muslims to complain, and one EOC employee, May Helou, even asked three converts from the Islamic Council of Victoria -- of which she was an official -- to drop in on the pastors' seminar.

So began a three-year prosecution against the pastors that has cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Last December, Judge Higgins finally ruled that Scot in particular had offended by quoting the Koran in a way that got "a response from the audience at various times in the form of laughter". Is laughter now a crime?

Stranger still, he gave 13 examples of how Scot had "made fun of Muslim beliefs and conduct", at least eight of which involved him quoting the Koran, and, I believe, accurately. Yes, the Koran indeed authorises men to beat their wives. Yes, it indeed calls for thieving hands to be chopped off.

What did Scot say that was false? The judge listed just two trivial examples, but also said Scot hadn't made clear enough he was giving a literalist reading of the Koran that wasn't mainstream.

Did he? Isn't it? On such points, so deserving of debate, Scot was convicted of stating the wrong opinion.

But if the judgment was strange, so was the penalty.

Scot and Nalliah must now run four big advertisements, costing $70,000, in the Herald Sun and The Age, declaring they've been found guilty of bad-mouthing Muslims.

Oddly, these apologies must reach not just the 250 people who were at their seminar, but 2.5 million newspaper readers who weren't. Odder still, the judge ordered the pastors to never even imply what they'd said about the Koran. They are banned from speaking their mind not only in Victoria, but anywhere in Australia, where others are still free to say what they may not.

Not surprisingly, the pastors say they'd rather go to jail than comply.
I have to say, I'm all for freedom of speech here, whether it's somebody burning the American (or Australian) flag, or somebody else criticizing Islam (or Christianity). Our nations, our institutions, and our religions are not some fragile flowers; they can take it. I'd rather know what people really think, instead of driving debate underground. I'd rather not create martyrs and I'd rather not criminalize differences of opinion.


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