Free Speech Still Under Attack

Free speech is always and everywhere under attack in the world, and as depressing as it is to have to keep pointing that out, I think it’s vital to highlight it when it happens so that this human right is never taken for granted. Unfortunately, these past few weeks have offered a surfeit of examples.

First, there’s India, whose government has quietly issued new rules allowing for the censorship of any internet content deemed “blasphemous”, “hateful” or “disparaging”. Apparently, all it takes is for someone to file a complaint. There’s no mechanism of appeal, and websites created or maintained in other countries aren’t exempted. Considering that India is beset with both Muslim and Hindu mobs that have shown themselves ready to riot over the slightest provocation, it’s not hard to guess what kind of websites will be among the first targets of fundamentalist complaints. Speech which “outrages religious feelings” is already illegal in India, and journalists and publishers have been arrested and charged under this law for speaking their minds, but this attempt to censor the entire Internet is a new and frightening extreme even if it’s certain to fail in practice.

From India to England, where a man has been sentenced to 70 days in jail for burning a Qur’an. The local police labeled this a “hate crime”, and the judge explained: “People are entitled to protest in this country… but [not] in such a way as it will inflame”. Since it “inflames” me to see a nonviolent act of protest punished with imprisonment, regardless of whether or not it was done with racist intent, am I entitled to demand that this judge and these police be sent to jail as well?

Meanwhile, in Italy, the director Nanni Moretti produced a satirical film called Habemus Papam (“We Have a Pope”), which depicts a panic-stricken incompetent thrust into the papacy who seeks psychiatric help to cope with the pressure. The shrieking denunciations and fatwa envy expressed by Catholic hard-liners were to be expected, but what’s more noteworthy is that a Catholic bigot named Bruno Volpe promptly filed a lawsuit against the producers under the Lateran Pact, a treaty ratified by Mussolini’s government that protects the “prestige of the pope”. Yes, let that sink in: Right-wing Catholics are openly using a law passed by fascists to attack free speech!

And for the European trifecta, there’s Spain, where a Madrid court has banned an atheist procession that had been scheduled to coincide with Catholic marches on Easter weekend. The “State Association of Christian Lawyers” (now there’s a pro-theocratic group if ever I heard of one) filed complaints which spurred the government to investigate and, astonishingly, file charges against the atheists, just for seeking permission to march:

Madrid’s local government… has launched legal proceedings against the group Ateos en Lucha [great name! —Ebonmuse] insisting it is ‘ridiculing religion’ and ‘glorifying terrorism’.

Apparently, the official position of the Spanish government is that Roman Catholics own certain dates and all nonbelievers are required to stay indoors and keep quiet. I always thought Spain was a secular country. What on earth is going on there?

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  • Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    You have to think Islamic violence has succeeded in creating an attitude in these countries that, fair being fair, all criticism or ridicule of religion has to be legally suppressed.

  • Katie M

    I certainly hope we get a chance to see Habemus Papam.

  • Ritchie

    If it makes you feel better, the Sun, Britain’s most widely-read newspaper, ran an online poll about the man who burnt the Koran, and 90% agree with you (though, it has to be said, possibly from slightly different reasons judging by some of the comments).

  • allein

    I will never understand how one can commit a hate crime against an inanimate object.

    [PS - Long time lurker, first time poster, as the saying goes. So... Hi!
    Why I chose this, who knows. I'm bored at work.]

  • themann1086

    Technically, it could be a hate crime in certain circumstances to burn a Koran, just as it can be a hate crime when the KKK burn crosses. It doesn’t seem that this incident meets that standard though.

    ETA: On someone else’s property is the usual standard in America, as it is essentially intimidation.

  • Steve Bowen

    I dont think the Qur’an burning incident is quite as clear cut in this case. The man’s language was deliberately inflammatory (the English Defense League is not a subtle organisation) and he stole the book from a library

    The court heard that Ryan has a number of previous convictions, including one for racial chanting at a football match.

    He had pleaded guilty to racially/religiously aggravated intentional harassment and theft of the Koran from Carlisle library at an earlier hearing.

    On that occasion he punched the air and shouted “no surrender” when the case was adjourned for pre-sentencing reports.

    During police interview he admitted that he knew his actions would stir up religious hatred.

  • Quath

    I think that Ryan should have gotten the same punishment as if someone had stolen “The Cat and the Hat” and set it on fire in the parking lot. My guess is it would just be a fine. The best way to fight free speech is with more free speech, not jail time.

  • Steve Bowen

    Remember that Ryan has form. I very much doubt that Qur’an burning alone would warrant this sentence. Probably sloppy reporting, (there is a hint that abusive language was used which given his history and friends in the English Defense League is likely to have been violent and inciteful), but we don’t really know what was said or done at the time from this story.
    In principle I absolutely agree that Qur’an burning is a victimless and trivial act that is better ignored by the law, but it depends on what else goes on around that act.

  • Mr.Kosta

    Hi there, this is my first post, although I’ve been visting this site for a few months now.

    I live in Spain, and I find Easter processions depressing. They are bloody displays of pain, torture and suffering, to see thousands of people worshipping a tortured, emaciated man nailed to a cross, or a woman crying tears of blood for his dead son revolts me deeper than I can express with words. And see what happens when someone has the guts to speak up.

    Thanks goodness the weather prevented most of these gruesome displays.

  • themann1086


    Wow, good catch. Destroying someone else’s property to “send a message” can be a hate crime. It’s certainly not free speech.

  • allein

    Mr Kosta – I have to agree with you there (though there aren’t any Easter processions going on around where I live, at least that I know of). My coworker has a religious-themed calendar, and last year for the entire month of April I got see a lovely picture of a bloodied Jesus on the cross every time I turned around in my cubicle. I can’t help but think that in any other context people would be disturbed by such imagery, and probably deem it inappropriate to hang on your cube wall at work. (This year’s calendar just had the empty tomb; actually a rather pretty picture, if you like that sort of thing.)

    On hate crimes, obviously there’s more to this particular case than I know (can’t really be clicking too many links at work to read about it, either). (Though there are those out there who would consider burning a “holy” book a hate crime in and of iself, I’m sure.) At least if you’re going to burn a book, make sure it’s one you own.

  • J. James

    Don’t these people in Spain realize that oppressing nonviolent aggregation by calling it “terrorism” may actually lead to terrorism? Make people angry enough and the weak-minded among them might snap… hopefully not.

    But still. That’s unbelievable enough to not go unpunished. Just you wait and see, those people will face legal repercussions.

  • TommyP

    Thanks for following this stuff Ebon. It’s some disturbing stuff, and it’s one of the big reasons I’m becoming more outspoken in my atheism.

  • Seomah

    Just remember that in Spain the catholic church has some legal arrangements made with the governement before the spanish constitution was made and voted, and they say that the constitution that says that Spain is a secular country does not apply to them. They have a subject in every primary and secondary school about religion, in school hours, and the teachers are hired and fired by the church as they wish, and guess who pays their wages. The state.

    The catholic church also gets lots of tax money in ways that are not exactly legal, and I’m not talking only about state taxes, but also about local governements. I’ve seen how in my hometown the town council gives my association money only after presenting a proper bill, and then they give you the money some 2-3 months after (quite usual here), but with the money for the church flowers the priest asked for money, they gave him what he wanted inmediately and the bill was never seen nor asked.

    Spain is a secular country oficially, and I’m happy to say that the church power is going down, but we’re very far from being secular.

    As for the eventual madman going terrorist, it’s quite more unusual here than in the USA.

  • Stephen P

    @Quath: how about if Ryan had stolen “The Cat in the Hat” and set it on fire in front of children while screaming furiously that children were worthless pieces of shit that society would be better off without? None of the reports I’ve seen are very explicit about what he was shouting, but the context suggests that it was something along those lines. 70 days jail seems excessive at first glance, but add the six previous convictions and I’m not convinced that it’s unreasonable.

    The Indian and Spanish cases sound much worse. The Italian case is apparently just starting – we’ll have to see what happens.

  • Noigiler

    @Mr. Kosta

    Regarding Spanish procession: I was in Madrid visiting my daughter (US college student studying abroad) and had an interesting experience with a procession. See my posting at…

  • Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    I am surprised, though perhaps I shouldn’t be, by how many writers in this thread defend the punishment of the Koran-burner by classing his actions as a hate crime.

    Hatred is intense, enduring anger.

    The world being what it is, and people being what they are, there are a lot of people at any given time in a state of intense, enduring anger about something.

    Why must we criminalize intrinsically harmless though effective ways they may choose to express, and hopefully successfully vent, some of that anger?

    If we value free speech, oughtn’t we to oppose such repression?

    Besides, who says people are always wrong to be intensely, enduringly angry?

    It seems to me the most significant demands for justice are often motivated by intense, enduring anger, richly deserved.

    Free speech for me, but not for thee?

  • Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    @9, yes, revolting but by no means unusual religious sado-masochism.

    The Shiite Muslims have similar events surrounding Ali, as I recall.

  • Noigiler

    @Gaius #17

    Well said, Gaius. In addition, if we apologize for the rage vented at a Koran burning, do we step on to the slippery slope of further intolerance to acts of free speech? Does then questioning the Koran become rageable (sorry for the made up word)? Where might it end? And would there be expectation that all religious books, out of a sense of fairness, be accorded the same “respect?”

  • Stephen P

    @Gaius: please, let’s not sink to the level of the dictionary games that many Christians love.

    A hate crime (possibly a different phrase would have been better, but that’s the one we’ve ended up with) is an action which is intended to induce fear in an identifiable sub-group – not merely a feeling of being offended, but fear. If that is what Ryan was aiming to achieve – and as I said, that is not entirely clear from the reports, but seems likely – then what he was doing was most definitely not harmless.

  • themann1086

    The more-technical, legal term for “hate crime” is “bias-crime”, or “bias-motivated crime”. It’s when someone commits a crime with the intent of terrorizing a specific group. So, burning a book that is not yours is a crime; if it was done to send a message of intimidation to a community, it’s a hate crime, which entails a harsher sentence. I really recommend reading David Neiwert’s work on this issue, both on his blog and in his book Death on the Fourth of July: the story of a killing, a trial, and hate crime. Some of it is available on google books here.

  • Mr.Kosta

    @Noigiler #16

    Well, I’ve also had similar experiences. That’s why in Easter I stay at home most of the time.

  • Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    Stephen @20, interesting definition.

    Still, burning a book, even while shouting epithets?


    People get prosecuted for doing stuff like that because they pissed somebody off who wanted to get back at them.

    And the law gave them a way to do it.

    That’s all.

    Oh, are Christians notorious for liking like Scrabble, or something?