by Pete Yates
The relationship between religion and freedom of expression has been called into question again in recent weeks. UCL’s Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society advertised its weekly drinks social with a cartoon apparently depicting Jesus and Mohammed drinking together at a bar. Following a number of complaints from students who were offended by the depiction of Mohammed, and perhaps conscious of the tension created by the actions of the UCL-educated “underwear bomber”, the UCL SU demanded that the image be removed from the society’s facebook page. Although the SU has now conceded that it cannot force the society to remove the offending image, there is a continuing threat of disciplinary proceedings against the committee on the grounds that the image constituted “an act of bullying, prejudice, harassment or discrimination”.
This is the latest in a series of modern clashes between religious groups and proponents of freedom of expression, with the Satanic Verses controversy being the most dramatic and far-reaching. The domain of religious outrage does not belong exclusively to Islam, however. A fortnight after the UCL controversy broke, Jay Leno attracted the ire of the Sikh community by suggesting that the Golden Temple of Amritsar was one of Mitt Romney’s holiday homes. An online petition has, bizarrely, described his comments as “racist”, and the Overseas Indian Affairs Minister Vayalar Ravi stated that “freedom does not mean hurting the sentiments of others”.
Of course, that is exactly what freedom of expression means. The free-speaker’s argument – that freedom of speech is meaningless without the freedom to offend – has become almost clichéd through long usage. The liberal tradition in this area, which stretches from Milton, Mill and Paine and which was recently and eloquently expressed by Christopher Hitchens, insists that offensive expression is valuable both for the speaker and for society as a whole. From the speaker’s perspective, it is a vital “constitutive” feature of a just society that a government treats all its citizens as responsible moral agents and allows them to form and express their own convictions. Through censorship, society deprives itself of the opportunity to question established truths. Milton captured this in Areopagitica:
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.
So, from the philosophical perspective of a liberal democracy it seems entirely straightforward that offensive speech should be protected. It is therefore all the more astonishing that the European Court of Human Rights appears to have created a “right not to be offended” by criticism or mockery of one’s religious beliefs. In 1985, the Otto-Preminger Institute in Innsbruck announced a series of six showings of Schroeter’s “Das Liebeskonzil”, a satirical film which portrays the God of the Abrahamic faiths as a senile old man who worships and kisses the devil, suggests that the Virgin Mary was a sexual deviant and portrays Jesus as a “low grade mental defective” who molests his own mother. In a masterpiece of non-sequiturs and circular reasoning, the Court held that the seizure of the film by the Austrian authorities had not violated the applicant’s Article 10 right to freedom of expression. This, apparently, was because “the respect for the religious feelings of believers as guaranteed in Article 9 can legitimately be thought to have been violated by provocative portrayals of objects of religious veneration”. A series of later cases have followed the lead set in Otto Preminger v Austria.
The court’s entirely unsubstantiated assertion that the film breached the Article 9 rights of believers is clearly wrong. The mere knowledge that it was being shown (behind closed doors) cannot possibly be said to inhibit believers’ abilities to hold or manifest their beliefs. The Court’s perceived “clash of rights”, which pitted the freedom of expression against the freedom of religion, is therefore illusory. The Court attempted to substantiate its empty rhetoric with the equally vacuous assertion that speech which is “gratuitously offensive” cannot contribute to any public debate capable of furthering human affairs. Leaving aside the obvious point that the publication of the Satanic Verses created a huge amount of public debate, neither the speech nor the offence it causes is “gratuitous” from the speaker’s point of view.
That the student union of a university which was apparently built on the principles of freedom and secularism should feel the need to self-censor in order to protect the religious from offence is deplorable. It is not, however, unexpected. Claims of religious offence are widespread, though secularists can be glad that religious institutions can no longer simply torture and burn those who trouble them (at least, not in the UK). What is unexpected, and much more worrying, is the apparent complicity of the European Court of Human Rights in this censorship – defenders of free speech should not have to fight on both these fronts. They have, however, won a minor victory recently. “Visions of Ecstasy” – the subject of a case very similar to Otto-Preminger v Austria and the only film ever to be banned in the UK on the grounds that it was “blasphemous” – was passed for release last week. This is a meagre step, but a step nonetheless, towards “the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience” which Milton valued above all others.