When Speech Challenges Religious Beliefs
Ever since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, many have taken great care in what they say. In one instance, a political science professor, Kenneth Hearlson, of Orange Coast Community College in California, urged his classroom to discuss the nature of Islam and its relationship to September 11. He posed the valid question of how Muslims and Islamic states could condemn the terrorist attacks on America and not the suicide bombers in Israel. It turned into a high-spirited discussion, in which some Muslim students took exception and complained to the dean. As a result, the College suspended professor Kenneth Hearlson (NOW with Bill Moyers at http://www.pbs.org).
In a free and democratic society that values our freedom of speech and religion, what are we to do when the two come into conflict? Should we limit free speech when it challenges, criticizes, mocks, or scorns our religious beliefs?
I will argue that Canadians do have the right to speak openly and freely with respect to other Canadian’s religious views and beliefs – even if it is to scorn, mock, or criticize. The only legal limit to free speech would be the incitement of serious injury to the state and its citizens. The government’s role is to look after our civil interests, which includes our physical safety.
The freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression is protected and enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Section 2a). This includes speech that is judged by others as offensive. People should be able to discuss the merits or demerits of a religion because it is a measure of opposing faiths and beliefs, not true and false. To prohibit religious debate allows ignorance to flourish. It prevents all participants from achieving a better understanding. Furthermore, the organizational nature of a religion actually allows for others to criticize their views because the religion can only have jurisdiction over its own members.
John Locke, in A Letter Concerning Toleration, defined the civil interests of government as, “…life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like” (1947). Therefore, the government has a right to interfere in our freedom of speech and religion if it interferes with the civil interests our society has to offer. In this case, the incitement of serious violence to the state and its people can justify silencing speech. Any speech short of this measure is best remedied through more speech.
In sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it conveys our right to freedom of conscience and religion (Section 2a) and freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression (Section 2b). The overwhelming message is that as Canadians, we are free to think and say pretty much anything we want. The Charter gives Canadians, “…equal protection...