The great jurist’s words still offer useful guidance as the headlines again report attacks on freedom of speech, and more particularly the most vital and sacred of all freedoms and responsibilities of the citizens of a free land -- the freedom, the responsibility, to cogently criticize the government.
As in Justice Brandeis’ day, Americans don’t seem to have much trouble recognizing the danger of “evilminded rulers” quashing freedom of expression.
Though the court found her innocent Thursday, the very fact that one of Turkey’s leading authors, Elif Shafak, could be charged and brought to trial in Istanbul last week for the “crime” of “insulting Turkishness” because she had the nerve to depict some of the characters in her latest novel actually discussing the government mass murder of Turkish Armenians in 1915, is appalling. In a nation that otherwise prides itself as a reasonably modern and secular state, it’s an embarrassment which could (quite properly) threaten Turkey’s admission to the European Union.
“I hope the absurdity of this case -- we’re talking about fictional characters -- will encourage people that’s it’s time to act” to repeal the absurd law, commented Joost Lagendijk, a European Parliament member who attended the trial.
Also last week, few Americans had any trouble recognizing the pathetic absurdity of riled-up Muslims in Somalia and on the West Bank burning churches and fatally shooting a missionary Christian nun in the back and even threatening to shoot the pope to protest Pope Benedict XVI (in a recent speech) characterizing Islam as a religion of violence -- especially when it turns out the words in question were a citation from a 14th century Holy Roman emperor, taken out of context from an address where the main theme (no surprise) was a call for dialogue and tolerance.
Condemnation of such deadly stupidity is appropriate, and comes easily to American lips.
We seem a lot slower, though, to recognize the danger of such “well-meaning” restrictions as the limits on “electioneering” speech by non-profit outfits in our own country which went into effect on Sept. 8 -- as they now go into effect 60 days before every national election -- as part of the “Election Reform” act of 2002.
The goal of the act was to prevent some parties from “contributing” to the campaigns of some politicians through “third party” advertising designed to promote some candidacies and harm others, while evading “campaign finance reporting” requirements. All very well-intentioned.
Meantime, the Internal Revenue Service is still reviewing whether the tax-exempt status of the liberal Episcopalian All Saints Church in Pasadena, Calif. should be yanked -- a whopping de facto financial penalty -- over charges the church violated the ban on tax-exempt churches meddling in politics when it allowed a guest pastor to preach a sermon asserting Jesus would have opposed George Bush’s war in Iraq, two days before the 2004 presidential election.
Under federal tax law as currently interpreted, church officials can legally discuss politics, but most not endorse candidates or parties from the pulpit. Most violators receive a warning, although the IRS did strip the tax-exempt status of the Church at Pierce Creek near Binghamton, N.Y. in 1995 after the church ran full-page ads against President Clinton in USA Today and The Washington Times during the 1992 elections.
All Saints was given an easy way out, this time around -- just promise to be more careful in future. They refused, God bless ’em.
During World War II, the rector of the liberal All Saints -- which now claims the largest church membership west of the Mississippi, at 3,500 -- spoke out against the internment of Japanese Americans. That was doubtless unpopular at the time. But it was a voice of conscience which should have been heeded.
To heck with “good intentions,” or IRS agents “just doing their jobs.” If we are to retain our freedoms, political speech must be untrammeled. Congress must repeal any laws that contend the “free speech zone” is somehow narrowed in September and October, in a race with courts that should meantime be tossing such nonsense on sight.
“Reformers” must either find another way, or give it up.
And it is an abomination that G-men are parsing transcripts of church sermons to decide what condemnations of current public policy are “allowed.” Either the churches should be taxed (newspapers and TV stations and firearm manufacturers and dealers pay lots of taxes, after all, despite their activities enjoying just as much protection in the Bill of Rights as the freedom of religion) or, preferably, church tax exemptions should be based on very general definitions of what a church is, with minimal room for government goons to tell priests and pastors what’s “OK to say.”
What is this, Turkey?
“Restriction on free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions,” said Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. “It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.”