Why It is Critical to Stand for Freedom of Expression in Politics and Religion, Even When it Means Defending Utter Crap

In a letter to Edward Carrington in 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the later. But I mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

I find this one of the most amazing things said by an amazing person, complicated, moral failure in many areas, hypocrite in some, and at the very same time as John F Kennedy said at a dinner honoring Nobel Prize award winners, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” To my mind Jefferson’s comment on access to information earns that accolade…

I watched the trailer for “Innocence of Muslims” on Youtube. It is thirteen minutes and fifty-one seconds of hateful crap.


I find myself concerned with this issue for two reasons. One is that this free access to information, both acquiring the ability to comprehend it (which demands people get decent educations that include some serious critical thinking skills), and then having the widest possible access to information is indeed the foundation of modern liberal democracy.

But, also, for me this is something that lies at the heart of liberal religion, the principle institutional expression of which is North American Unitarian Universalism.

This full access together with some tools for dealing with it is our way.

This is predicated upon a belief that all religions contain what is necessary to salvation. Salvation, salve, healing of broken hearts. It doesn’t mean all religions are true. In fact I don’t think so. What I do believe is that we contain within our human hearts and minds and therefore within our institutions devoted to meaning and purpose, all that is necessary to find that healing.

No doubt there is a ton of nonsense that comes along in both the institutional expressions of our hearts and hopes, because there’s a ton of nonsense that comes along with our human hearts and hopes. Hence travesties like the “Innocence of Muslims.” Human beings see all things through a glass darkly, but, and here’s the rub as I see it, there is no “then” when it will be otherwise. The cloud and the clear occupy the same time and place.

So, I defend no orthodoxy, and defend the right of every one of them to state their case.

And, for us each us, this is a call to learn how to examine closely. To question authority, starting, of course, with that nasty and lovely little authority that drives the thing called “me.”

Only don’t know, as the wise say. This is the universal solvent.

Is this movie, that it or at least the trailer is available and the horrific responses throughout the Muslim world evidence of a clash of civilizations? Perhaps. Although I notice there are those within our own civilization who would silence those they don’t like – and I’ve seen this on both right and left.

This radical freedom is a radical stance everywhere. People fear it. People will undermine it in a New York minute if they can.


Freedom of speech is the core liberty from which all others arise.


Let the presses run. Let Youtube post every lecture, sermon and rant.

(And, no, this doesn’t mean I’m obligated to post your hate speech here. It means you can start your own blog…)

And, don’t forget the part of Jefferson’s little comment, prepare yourself to deal with the information you’re given. There’s a terrible noise to message ratio in life, and as I’m concerned mostly with religion, there’s a terrible noise to message ratio in, near as I can tell, all religions. Some better than others, but none exempt…

Prepare yourself.

Then pay attention.

That’s the way to the holy.

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  • http://mettai.blogspot.com Mettai Cherry

    Thanks James. It is so important to remember, when I am righteously indignant, that I must walk that difficult line between condemning hatred and bigotry and defending people’s right to speak it. It is really hard living in an area of intolerance, where mosques are not allowed for reasons which wouldn’t stop baptist churches from being built to not avoid ranting against that. But it is only the hateful actions, the “no you can’t be Muslim here” or “you can’t be here if you’re female” that should be acted upon in turn.

  • http://www.JeffersonLeadership.com Patrick Lee

    For more on Mr. Jefferson, he now blogs!
    Several times each week, he posts briefly on a variety of topics, including education and religion.
    Recent posts:
    - What does THAT building do for YOU?
    - Angry bulls ahead! Stand aside!
    - Which describes you? Do you hope … or fear?
    - Don’t get stuck on stupid.
    - Luxury, drinking & whores! Oh my!
    Read his own words at http://ThomasJeffersonLeadership.com/blog/

  • Ellen Skagerberg

    Spot on, sir. “Taking offense,” “having my feelings hurt,” and “damage” are not all the same thing.

    As an independent bookseller, I stand firmly for the rights of people to say whatever nonsense they want about God — their own fictional god, the god of their childhood that they now resent, or their neighbor’s god — and for that speech to be legally protected. “You were being offensive ON PURPOSE” is not a defense for subsequent violence against them, any more than “he was mean-mugging me, so I shot him.” American free-speech must not be compromised to accommodate other cultures that disallow free speech.

    Take the opinion of those who are against same-sex marriage. Voicing that opinion does not qualify as “hate speech,” even though the progressive left spins it that way. I disagree with that stance, but people in America have a right to that opinion and that set of values, and they have the right to voice it in the public square without risk of being thrown in prison, or for their opinion being license for others to beat them up. “But being against full civil rights for all creates a culture of intolerance that puts gay people at risk …” Yes, I know. But voicing an opinion is not the same as breaking someone’s nose or burning their house down. There is a greater risk to our democracy when some opinions are considered “too dangerous” to be legally protected.

  • Ken Johnson

    To me this raises the ultimate counterpunctual question: Were a certain video never uploaded to youtube, would we miss it? I undeerstand the necessity of upholding free speech, but the idea that this necessitates defending hatespeech s seems specious and mistaken. For example, in Germany today it is illegal to produce pro-nazi literature. Should we fight for that too? When I was a school kid I never fought for the bullies right to torment my peers, and often got into trouble for doing the opposite.

  • Stu Carr

    I keep going back to the last sentence of this Jefferson quote: “But I mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” More specifically, what did Jefferson mean, “…capable of reading them.” ?

    Maybe Jefferson meant that we ALL should have critical thinking (or reading) skills? If this is his intent, we cannot have free access to information without the tools to process that same information.

    Let’s not “throw out the baby with the bath water”.

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/monkeymind james

    Stu, you have your finger on the other part of the deal. I had hoped I’d said that. And I’m more than glad you’ve underscored it!