By Bob Terry at The Alabama Baptist
The reaction in the United States to the terrorist attacks in Paris that left 17 people dead would make one think the United States is unshakably committed to the constitutionally guaranteed right of free speech. In metropolitan areas across the nation people joined with Parisians and others across Europe to declare “Je suis Charlie,” or “I am Charlie,” a pledge of solidarity with the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
The exercise of free speech by that publication’s cartoonists and editors resulted in 11 people being murdered by Islamic terrorists. Reportedly the terrorists were offended by the publication’s treatment of the prophet Muhammad. It is not the first time perceived insults to the Muslim prophet resulted in terrorist activities. Salman Rushdie, author of “The Satanic Verses,” has famously lived under death threats for more than 20 years because of reactions to his book by some Muslim clerics who issued a “fatwah,” or “death sentence,” against him.
The United States Constitution enshrines freedom of speech as an inalienable right for all citizens in this country. But exercising that right has always been expensive and it seems to be becoming more expensive.
Paying the price
The late Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Doug Marlette is a case in point. Marlette drew “Kudzu” before his untimely death in 2007. He wrote that the values and attitudes reflected in his cartoons were shaped by his Sunday School experience at Magnolia Street Baptist Church, Laurel, Miss. His cartoons could be biting, especially to religious bureaucrats. In Marlette’s obituary, a friend wrote, “I can’t think of a religious group he didn’t offend. He even offended the Episcopalians and you know how hard it is to offend an Episcopalian.”
Marlette offended the Clintons with a series of cartoons about the escapades of the former president, but the Clinton wrath was nothing like that coming from the defenders of North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, among them some Southern Baptist leaders. So infuriated were they over Marlette’s cartoons poking fun at Helms that they punished a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) entity that dared to invite Marlette, a fellow Baptist, to be on a program.
For Marlette and the SBC entity, commitment to free speech was costly.
Consider what is happening on college campuses where prohibitions on hate speech are increasingly defined to prevent comments about biblically based ethical positions.
A 2014 report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reported 59 percent of America’s higher educational institutions have policies that infringe on freedom of speech while another 35.6 percent have policies that overregulate speech on campus.
The report cited policies that prevented speech that “teased” or “ridiculed” certain groups. In other places schools established “free speech zones” and did not allow students to talk about certain topics outside those designated areas on threat of expulsion.
Universities are under pressure to prevent speech that offends any group based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. As a result, in some places Christian students must listen to advocates of homosexual behaviors but are punished if they speak up for traditional marriage as outlined in the Bible.
Increasingly for students who hold viewpoints that are biblically based and do not conform to “politically correct” opinions, practicing free speech is costly.
It can be costly to practice free speech in the public square as well. In 2012, Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy found his company the target of a nationwide boycott because he announced the company supported traditional marriage and lent financial support to a Pennsylvania conference promoting traditional marriage enrichment. The company never was accused of discriminating against anyone.
Chick-fil-A was vilified because its founders dared support a view of marriage based on the Bible rather than the politically correct position of modern-day culture. Calls for tolerance and understanding advocated by the lesbian gay bisexual transgender (LGBT) community when their cause was unpopular were nowhere to be heard during the brouhaha.
Today former Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran is learning that free speech is costly. Cochran is one of the nation’s leading authorities on fire safety. In between two terms as Atlanta fire chief he served two years as U.S. Fire Administrator under President Barack Obama. He also is a deacon, Sunday School teacher and Bible study leader at Elizabeth Baptist Church, Atlanta, which cooperates with the Georgia Baptist Convention.
Cochran was fired Jan. 6 by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed because Cochran published a book called, “Who Told You That You Were Naked.” The book is aimed at helping Christian men overcome the feeling of guilt over past sins. In a half-page section, the author calls homosexual behavior immoral.
Ironically Cochran received permission from the city ethics officer who told him the book was fine as long as he did not write about government or the fire department, sources reported.
But Cochran’s exercise of free speech in his book landed him in hot water. An investigation by the city found no evidence of discrimination by Cochran and no complaint was filed against him by any member of the Atlanta Fire Department. Still the mayor fired Cochran saying the book undermined feelings of fairness and respect by the community related to employment decisions.
What a farce. Atlanta is known as one of the nation’s most “welcoming” cities for the LGBT community and the action by Reed is exhibit A that power and authority will go to great lengths to quash any speech it does not condone. Again, free speech in the United States is costly and the cost is increasing.
One observer noted that once free speech is limited, the result will be further restrictions until the emphasis on the public good will be so powerful that the individual liberty of free speech will be assigned to history as an unfortunate experiment that did not work.
Is the United States headed in that direction? Standing for free speech in times of crisis is too little too late. Standing for free speech must be done in cases like Cochran’s, in cases like Chick-fil-A’s, in cases involving limitations on free speech on college campuses or in cartoons, whether they be published in “Kudzu” or Charlie Hebdo.
Ultimately free speech is a religious issue as evidenced in a growing number of situations across the nation. Baptists, who long have championed free speech, must be careful not to sacrifice this essential liberty by their silence.
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