The Fallacy of Free Speech

In August 2005, according to a December article in the San Francisco Examiner, the private Calvary Chapel Christian School sued the University of California. The UC’s offense, according to Calvary Chapel’s lawsuit, was in not granting college credit for several courses taught from an explicitly Christian viewpoint; doing so, they claim, constitutes discrimination against the Christian viewpoint.

Consider, if you will, the implications of this lawsuit. Calvary is claiming that the UC should not be allowed to set its own admissions requirements – that if Calvary decides a course is appropriate for college credit, then the UC, and presumably every other university, is required to respect that decision, regardless of the course’s subject matter or content. This holds true even if the course is an American history course taught from a devotional, proselytizing viewpoint (for as we all know, Christian fundamentalists show no tendency toward fudging the truth when it comes to Christianity’s place in American history), or a a science course taught from a textbook that strives to “put the Word of God first and science second“. To do otherwise, it seems, would “violate the freedom of speech of Christian schools, students and teachers”. (I wrote some years ago in Why You Should Fight Creationism that creationists, if given the chance, would target private universities in an attempt to force their beliefs to be taught there as science. This is one of the occasions where I take no pleasure in being right.)

Since Calvary is still completely free to teach whatever ludicrously slanted or inaccurate courses they like, it might at first seem unclear how their free speech rights are being violated. But that confusion can be cleared up when one realizes that this lawsuit is another tentacle of an emerging strategy of the religious right. These advocates of Christian correctness have surreptitiously added a new condition: free speech is the right to speak your mind and have others accept what you say as valid. Calvary Chapel’s administrators offer courses that privilege the Christian viewpoint above others and that study Christianity in a devotional, rather than an unbiased, way (sample titles: “Christianity’s Influence on America”, “Special Providence: Christianity and the American Republic”, and “Christianity and Morality in American Literature”. One rejected text was the Biology for Christian Schools textbook cited in “Thoughts in Captivity“). They then expect that other schools will accept these courses as fully valid curricula deserving academic credit, and when other schools do not do this, Calvary Chapel claims that this is “censoring” their viewpoint. Similarly, intelligent-design advocates say that ID is science and not religion, and believe that others should accept that and treat them accordingly, or else their right to free speech is being violated.

This is wrong. The extra condition that these Christians have tacked onto the definition of free speech is their own invention; there is no “right to be taken seriously” in the Constitution. On the contrary, just as your right to free speech means that you can speak your mind, other people’s equal right to free speech allows them to jeer at, scorn, and reject what you say, or call it false or a lie. And just because a Christian group says that their beliefs are scientific, that does not make them correct, as ID advocates found out to their chagrin in the recent Kitzmiller v. Dover court case. Free speech includes the right to be wrong.

The Calvary Chapel case is just one aspect of a larger strategy. The religious right has discovered the tactic of defining their religion in a way that allows them to force it on everyone else, and then cry that their rights are being violated when they are not permitted to do this. The final step, which is on full display in this article, is to claim that anyone who will not roll over and allow them to do exactly as they want is “biased against Christians” and “has taken sides in the culture war”. This label is then used as an excuse to automatically dismiss anything that person or group says in the future.

This suit also partakes of another religious right strategy, which is to raise cries of discrimination and prejudice loudly and often as a response to anything other than complete submission to their noxious agenda; anything less is considered intolerable. Groups that disagree with them in even a single detail are vilified and attacked as furiously as groups that disagree with them in all. (As the USA Today article points out, UC does grant credit for 43 other Calvary Chapel courses that meet its standards. Evidently this is not enough for them.) This forcible division of the world into white and black, friend and foe, with us vs. against us, is a common characteristic of simplistic fundamentalist thinking, but it also serves to agitate their base by portraying everyone who is not a full ally as an enemy that must be destroyed. Depicting UC as a reasonable group with whom they have some common ground, rather than a prejudiced liberal enemy of Christianity, doubtless would not arouse the unthinking fury among their followers they count on to put pressure on their opponents.

It is disturbing to imagine the academic nihilism and chaos that would ensue if this suit succeeded. If Calvary won in court, what would prevent any fringe group from demanding that its own heavily slanted, devotional courses receive full college credit or else? Could astrology advocates receive credit toward an astronomy degree? Would Christian Scientists apply to medical school and demand credit for courses that taught them to forsake all treatment in favor of prayer?

Or imagine the shoe was on the other foot. Imagine that Christian colleges such as Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University or Bob Jones University received applications from students who had attended a private and explicitly atheist high school. This school teaches courses such as “Atheism’s Influence on America’s Founders”, “The Lack of Divine Influence on World History”, and “The Prevalence of Atheism in Great Literature”, and uses science textbooks that state, “This book always strives to put atheism first and science second.” When these Christian schools refuse to grant credit for these courses, the atheists sue them, on the grounds that this action constitutes unconstitutional discrimination against atheism. One can only imagine the hysterical screams of persecution and “judicial activism” that would arise from the right-wing Christian community. Nothing else imaginable would put the fundamentalist double standard, where any action that furthers their cause is acceptable and righteous and any action that does not further their cause is evil and Satanic, on clearer display.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • andrea

    The new tactic that has been described is the usual situational ethics of many Christians. Free speech is bad unless it’s for what we want. Do as we say and believe as we believe. As for us, if it’s inconvenient, well, we’ll do what we want. The Constitution is inviolate (as Justice Scalia has claimed, even the slavery parts evidently), unless we want it changed of course. Then, well, amend the damn thing until it resembles the Ten Commandments.

    It is a true pity that many of the media aren’t brave enough to ask the tough questions. So, take up the torch. Write letters to the editor of your local papers. Show the wolf in sheep’s clothing for what it is.

    I only wish I had the nerve to insist that I be allowed to speak at a church that was so backward. It’s only “fair”, you know.

  • Dominic Self

    I think it’s worth making the economic argument as well, to gain support from those who may traditionally (and bizarrely) ally themselves with the fundamentalists. Quite apart from moral standards of education, how on earth is the future generation of American scientists going to compete with their European, Chinese or Indian peers (to name a few examples) if they are given a handicapped science education?

    It’s all very well if you believe the world was created in 6 days, but not believing in evolution is rather going to hinder efforts in scientific research and innovation which will mean American *loses out* to other countries. Not great news for the universities and companies which depend on being a centres of excellence not just in America, but in the world.

  • Ebonmuse

    Indeed so, Dominic, and we’re already seeing things like that. Carl Zimmer wrote a while back about how Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida, convinced a major biomedical research institute, the Scripps Research Institute, to build a campus in his state – and almost simultaneously, hired a creationist hack as state education chancellor. The scientists at Scripps are explicit that their work depends on evolution.

    And let’s not forget the American scientists who are moving to Singapore to do their job because there are fewer restrictions on stem-cell research there than there are here.

  • Ebonmuse

    The Constitution is inviolate (as Justice Scalia has claimed, even the slavery parts evidently), unless we want it changed of course.

    I only wish they were actually changing it to get what they want. As programs such as warrantless wiretapping and the indefinite and arbitrary detention of American citizens show, Bush and his cronies evidently feel free to simply ignore the Constitution whenever they consider it inconvenient.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    I’m not sure how the media isn’t brave enough to ask the tough questions; they are the diametric opposites of fundamentalists, and generally slam on the right all day long. Pope Bush knows all about this, no? But yeah, this is the conundrum that occurs when governments pay for schooling; it becomes a huge quagmire over what’s suppressing free religion or free speech and allows all sides to abuse the Constitution to no end. I’d privatize all schools completely, but I know I won’t have my way, so I’ll argue against this case. And I do wish the right would learn that the Constitution is supposed to limit the government in social issues, they never get that. We now must worry with Alito and Roberts on the court…

  • andrea

    I’ll have to clarify and say that the media may be brave enough to ask the right questions but they aren’t brave enough to pursue the evasions or ask the right follow-up questions. It’s pretty much why I take all news with a grain of salt and end up believing “The Daily Show” more than them.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    Of course; they already are ragged on for being left-leaning; it wouldn’t help them any if they came out sounding totally socialist. I know that opposing dogmatism isn’t socialist, but the average viewer will feel that way. No one wants to lose the entire religious south or west by sounding pushy against religion. But honestly, I don’t think it’s the media’s fault; it’s people not caring. Most who aren’t religious just ignore the religious arguments. Hopefully, this site and other like it can provide enough hard-hitting issues that people who visit it without much care go away determined to help, even if it’s just a little.