Free speech and religious (in)tolerance (again) (continued)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about some guys who want homosexuality to carry the death penalty in the UK.

Well, today three of them were convicted of hate crimes.

On balance, I think that this is a good thing. They put leaflets through peoples’ (including gay peoples’) letterboxes entitled Turn Or Burn and Death Penalty?, which said that homosexuals should be stoned or burned to death and that capital punishment is the “only way to rid society of homosexuality”. To me, that’s a long step over the free speech line and a short hop from incitement, via threatening behavior.

I’ll update this when the men are sentenced. In the meantime, it’s over to you again UFers: Should I abhor what these men say but fight for their right to say it? Or should I hope to see them jailed?

  • UrsaMinor

    It seems to me that before you can make that call, you have to decide which is the more fundamental right: the right to be free of threats from your fellow citizens, or the right to express whatever thoughts you please.

    Seems to me that this is general incitement, and not a concrete threat against anyone in particular. That muddies the waters.

  • kentuckyfreethinker

    Don’t know about the UK, but on the American side of the pond it is illegal for any private citizen to put anything in another’s mailbox. So that would be the charge. As for the free speech issue, unless there is a clear threat, it should remain unfettered. It is easy to pick and choose which hateful speech is unworthy of protection — unless you are the one doing the speaking. I am much more concerned about being censored than a few crackpots taking their (verbal) shots.

    • http://notsosecretsecretblog.blogspot.com/ abeille

      Its a felony charge at that! (Putting stuff in people’s mailboxes in the US.)

      • http://themikewrites.blogspot.com JohnMWhite

        The use of a personal mail box is what has me leaning toward agreeing that this sort of thing should not be protected speech. In the UK, most people have a letter box right on their front door, so for somebody to put something like that through it they are essentially coming down your garden path and leaving you a note saying “kill the gays”. If you are gay or care about gay people, that can be seen as a pretty threatening invasion of privacy. I don’t think somebody standing on a street corner saying “the Bible condemns homosexuality as an abomination” should be arrested, but their speech is in the public arena and not forced upon me in my own home.

        I certainly do not think any sentence should be harsh or custodial. There’s no point locking up people for vague suggestions of violence – it will only harden them and make them more likely and capable to commit actual violence later. Briefly serving the community they upset or harassed with their hatespeech should be enough. Maybe they could learn empathy or something.

  • Will Powers

    Since we didn’t see the notice, it is hard to say if there was a call to “vigilante” action, or a call for the govt. to do something. If it was a call for the govt. to do something, it is free speech, if it called for immediate vigilante action, then it is and should be treated as a hate crime. The rule in the US in particular is the free speech is guaranteed to even vile speech, but a call to violence isn’t protected. It is a marketplace of ideas and the free market eliminates the vile.

  • FO

    One thing is to say “homosexuality is bad for our society and we should find a cure”: that’s stupid at best, possibly dangerous, but not inherently hateful.

    Another thing is “kill all homosexuals”, ie proposing a violent solution for a problem (real or imaginary) that (if real) must be solved otherwise.

    • http://themikewrites.blogspot.com JohnMWhite

      Where do you draw the line between those concepts, though? If people want to say homosexuality *is* bad, and thus *must be* cured, they’re already stepping all over the right to self-determination of homosexuals. What kind of cure? Would the cure be violent or damaging, would it be forcibly administered? Soon the gulf between “cure them” and “kill them” gets very narrow. And look what happened to Alan Turing when he was ‘cured’ by the state for having a sexual orientation that was thought to be bad for society.

      • FO

        I draw the line when you actually suggest to harm people.

        • http://themikewrites.blogspot.com JohnMWhite

          Yes, but that’s my point – harm is in the eye of the beholder. A cure can be harmful.

          • FO

            There are already illegal ways to physically harm people.

            “Inciting people to pursue those illegal ways to harm” is a viable line to draw.

            • http://themikewrites.blogspot.com JohnMWhite

              You’re still missing the point. You argue there’s a difference between saying “homosexuals should be cured” and “homosexuals should be executed”, but we’ve already established that a cure, and an imperative to submit to that cure, can be harmful. So when you say “homosexuals should be cured”, you can be argued to be inciting harm and we’re back at square one.

  • Revyloution

    Im just going to copy/pasta, i put a lot of thought into what I wrote there.

    Free speech should be inviolate. But I also have some really good reasons not to limit speech like this. The first reason is that prohibiting it won’t change the minds of people who hold these ideas. The only thing that banning their speech will do is martyr them. Once these ideas are driven underground, they can fester and even grow. Another thing to think about; when idiots like this show their bigotry in public, it’s easier to keep track of them.

    Now, saying they should be able to say these things doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be punished. Actions like this need to be tried in the court of public opinion, and punishments need to be meted out with the firm hand of ridicule. I think Michael Moore gave a perfect example of this with his Gay Bus, where he had a bus full of flamboyant gay men who danced and partied in front of the Westborough Baptist Church. A great way to handle these Muslims would be to get a 6’2″ muscular transvestite to follow them around with streaked mascara crying ‘Why did you leave me? You said you loved me!! I don’t care if your penis is tiny, I still LOVE YOU! WAAAHHHH!!!’ Or perhaps all of the gay policemen and women in London could show up and counter protest them. Let your imagination soar, the joys of harassing these fellows is endless, unless we jail them just for speaking their mind.

    I have to quote some Hitchens at this point. The only response to bad speech should be more speech.

    • http://themikewrites.blogspot.com JohnMWhite

      I’d love to agree with that, but the trouble comes from the difference between a gay bus and a blown-up bus. Somebody could be easily intimidated by having leaflets saying their kind should be executed shoved through their door, and somebody a bit unhinged could go and get the idea to start doing it themselves.

      I worry that I’m leaning down the slippery slope of trying to bar speech because of its consequences, but I believe that already has been somewhat reasonably codified. In the US at least, you famously cannot shout fire in a crowded theatre. And in the UK, you might wind up in trouble for slander if you pretend a Muslim cleric loves transvestites and has a tiny penis.

      That is a big bone of contention all of its own – individuals (rich ones at least) are defended against untruths and unprovable statements being made about them, but trying to make average people feel like hellbound sinners who deserve to be murdered by the state simply for being who they are is to be protected? I understand the value of protecting unpopular speech, but it’s hard to swallow, particularly when we already have provisions preventing damage being done by targeted bullshit.

      • Revyloution

        There are also the professional ridiculeists. These guys serve a great purpose in a free society. England’s comedians and entertainers should be at the forefront of punishing these men by shining the brilliant light of mockery and derision on them. Yes, we risk violence, but we also risk violence if we martyr them.

        I don’t see how putting them on trial and locking them up will change their minds, or the like minded. Honestly, what we should be fighting for is the next generation. This one is already lost. If we can use media and entertainment to make gay bashing uncool, then it’s easy to remove homophobia. All we have to do is make the fools of today the target of humiliation.

      • Bill

        “In the US at least, you famously cannot shout fire in a crowded theatre. ”

        This example from Schenck v US is everyone’s favorite example of US law on limiting speech. And why not, when Oliver Wendell Holmes speaks we probably should listen. Here’s the thing, the case from which this comes was latter overtuned in the Brandenburg case, which greatly narrowed prohibitions on speech. (See my comments in the last thread.) While falsely screaming fire in a crowded theater is still probably prohibited speech, it’s part of a subclass of prohibited speech that is very small.

        I think it’s very unlikely these men would have been prosecuted in the US. Particularly given the religious nature of their speech.

        If Fred Phelps and his kin are protected, it seems likely to me this group is too. (See Snyder v. Phelps.)

        • Revyloution

          I always found it amusing that the ‘can’t shout fire’ idea was just hypothetical. In the history of law, no one has ever been charged with this crime.

          I applauded, and wept, when the Phelps verdict was handed down. I knew it was the right thing to do, and I felt terrible for all the people who would suffer because of it.

  • Mahousniper

    Hate crime IS thought crime. It’s saying society disagrees with your thoughts, so therefore we’ll punish you for thinking them. Living in America, where atheists are the least trusted group of people, beneath even rapists, I kind of have some problems with this idea.

    People should not be punished simply for holding extreme or controversial opinions. Ever.

    • Custador

      I disagree. Nobody’s punishing these guys for what they think. They’re punishing them for what they do about it.

      • Bill

        No, in this case they are punishing them for expressing their thoughts.

        Hate crimes generally are penalty enhancers for actual criminal conduct. They don’t criminalize the expression of hateful ideas.

        Example:

        Guy beats the shit out of someone while screaming “I hate you (fill in racist crap of your choice)!” = Hate crime.

        Guy just screams “I hate you (fill in racist crap of your choice)!” at that same person. = Not a hate crime.

        • Ty

          Bill, I have a lawyer question to ask.

          Is incitement an actual thing? Can you be charged with inciting violence?

          • Bill

            In most states there is some form of statute in place regarding inciting public violence. For instance it’s criminal to icite a riot.

            Music fans may recall that in 1991 Axl Rose was charged with inciting a riot in St Louis. As I recall, he jumped in to the crowd and got in a fight over a camera, yelled “fuck you” at the crowd and stormed off stage. I believe a judge threw the case out some time later.

            There are of course other statutes that start too look a lot like incitement. For instance “soliciting a crime.” I’m looking at a statute that reads: “whoever, with intent that a felony be committed advises another to commit that crime under circumstances that indicate unequivocally that he or she has the intent is guilty of a class H felony.” Please note all the qualifiers in there though.

            Often incitement cases come up in a civil context though. Party A allegedly inspires party B to burn down a house by saying something like “we need to drive all Muslims out of our neighborhood.” The house owner sues alleging both parties are responsible for the property loss. The allegedly inciting party claims it violates their first amendment rights… The Phelps case was a bit like this.

            • Ty

              So, could distributing literature that says gays should be killed be considered an incitement to violence under the statutes?

              I’m honestly curious.

            • Bill

              Given the right set of facts and jury, I can see a conviction happening.

              I’m less certain that conviction survives a constitutional challenge in the appellate courts.

    • FO

      No, I’ll punish them to incite people to harm other people.
      I think a clear distinction can be made.

    • Michael

      Except many crimes are, to some extent, thought crimes. Murder is only first degree if you thought about it first. Firing someone because of his race is illegal, but firing the same man for a different reason is legal. In most states, possession of (small amounts of) drugs is a misdemeanor (or sometimes just an infraction), but possession with intent to distribute is a felony. And so on.

      The justifications for actions appear to be very important for determining their status as crimes and the severity of the sentence.

      • Bill

        “Except many crimes are, to some extent, thought crimes. Murder is only first degree if you thought about it first.”

        This assumes criminal action along with the thought, not the thought alone.

        Here I’m not sure that the actions rise to the level where they should be considered criminal.

        • Custador

          According to the Telegraph, quotes from the leaflets include:

          “Allah permits the destruction [of those who allow homosexuality and those who practise it].”

          and

          “The death sentence has already been passed on every homosexual… The only question is how it should be carried out”.

          The leaflet goes on to suggest hanging, stoning and burning as preferred methods.

          This isn’t speaking of hypothetical futures, it’s inciting murder. Well, fuck that noise, man. The rights of ordinary citizens to go about their day free from the threat of death most certainly trump the rights of extremists to agitate for homophobic mobs.

          • Bill

            I disagree. But I understand reasonable minds can disagree on this one.

          • Mahousniper

            Except there was no action. The only action was distributing leaflets. In America, we allow people to protest funerals with signs like “Fags Deserve Death” and “Pray for More Dead Soldiers” and that’s legal. Because they only action they take is protesting. If there is damage caused and it can be linked to the leaflets, then it’s reasonable to prosecute, but if there’s no damage then I don’t know how you can justify arresting them.

            • FO

              “Fags deserve death” = idea
              “Kill fags” = incitement to action

              The distinction is very artificial, but I think it’s a practical compromise between free speech and the message that society won’t tolerate violence against a minority group (unfortunately it appears we need it).

            • Mahousniper

              I cannot agree with this “incitement to action” argument everyone is using, since there have been no actions yet incited. It’s dolling out an actual punishment for a potential crime. You shouldn’t punish someone just because it might be bad in the future.

            • FO

              This kind of incitement creates the social conditions where the crime becomes acceptable by part of the community.
              Once peer pressures are released, legal deterrent goes only so far, violence becomes much easier and makes you a martyr.

  • Theory_of_I

    Civil liberties and free speech? Independent thought vs “allthink.” Just as the preemptive strike mentality of the Bush administration proved to be a monumental blunder, thinking we know that the thought of a crime proves intent and will inevitably result in the commission of that crime is wrongheaded.

    Reductio ad absurdum – everyone has had crimethoughts at some time. Is that sufficient cause to accuse and convict everyone? Who will be the judge, jury or jailer?

    • Custador

      Once again:

      “Allah permits the destruction [of those who allow homosexuality and those who practise it].”

      and

      “The death sentence has already been passed on every homosexual… The only question is how it should be carried out”.

      That’s not thought crime – It’s an attempt to have homosexuals lynched. There’s a massive difference. I’m not saying that anybody has a right to never be offended, but I do believe we all have a right, in the ordinary course of affairs, to not be made to fear for our lives and safety by the deliberate actions of other people.

      • Theory_of_I

        It may be said in this specific case that the perpetrators are victims of “allthink” via religious inculcation. It may well be then, having committed themselves to that ‘different law’ that they don’t qualify for FS protection.

        I don’t disagree that they should be prevented from enacting their delusions, however, I can see a slippery slope where FS is slowly dismantled a chip at a time and like the frog in a pot, and unvigilant we all lose.

  • GaR

    Looks like a clear cut incitement to murder to me. Way over the line.

    • Mahousniper

      Over the line? Yes. Protected by free speech? Yes.

      It’s a sacrifice you need to make for freedom of speech. Hate speech is perfectly allowed unless it actually causes harm. This has not actually caused any harm.

      • Custador

        It hasn’t caused physical harm, but do you not think that telling people you’ve sentenced them to death and the execution method will be burning, hanging or stoning could inflict some severe psychological damage? Particularly when the person doing the telling belongs to a demographic which isn’t exactly innocent of murdering people for twisted reasons like that?

      • GaR

        I don’t know what the law has to say about it in the UK, but if you’re okay with incitement to murder then that’s your call. Personally I don’t see how anyone who isn’t a complete scumbag could be okay with it.

      • GaR

        Wait, it isn’t protected by free speech, is it? The dudes got arrested. I mean, presumably they’ve yet to be convicted, but so far all signs point to them being in the wrong legally as well as morally.

        • GaR

          oh gods, I really lost track of this. They have been convicted, so it would appear that their hate speech is not protected as fee speech… unless you’re arguing that they were wrongfully convicted?

  • Lana

    I often feel out of place as an American, because I don’t personally feel hate speech should be protected as free speech. The whole point of free speech is that no one is prevented in contributing to the public debate. I don’t see how hate speech is contributing to the public debate.

    Many people have told me that it’s a slippery slope; that if we start saying homophobes like the Westboro Baptist protesters can’t say the things they say, how long will it be until we can’t disagree with, say, the President? I say as long as one is not using inflammatory hate speech to disagree in public debate, we’re fine.

    I admire countries that look at inflammatory, hateful, vicious behavior like that and (rather than turning a blind eye), essentially say, “This contributes nothing to the public conversation and could in fact cause physical and psychological harm to many of our citizens. No.”

    I wish we’d do the same with some of our nation’s more embarrassing abuses of free speech.

    • FO

      The slippery slope argument is true, because we actually live under governments that would love nothing less than curbing dissent, see what is happening with the Occupy movements (like them or not) and the brutal repression that follows.

      I draw the line at incitement to violence.
      Hateful as the WBC are, how would you word a law that prevented them from picketing funerals but not rightful dissent against a powerful entity, such as the government or a corporation?

      But despite the Second Amendment, Patriot Act passed without a gun shot.
      Treasure your freedom, you have less than 10 years ago.

    • Lynne

      Your comment has definitely put a smile on my face. You’ve said everything I feel.

      • Lynne

        CRAP!!!!! I’m sorry! I meant that last comment for Lana.

  • http://patheos.com RickRay1

    I’m glad they were arrested. Since I feel that homosexuality is innate, I would not want someone dropping a letter in my mailbox saying I should die because I’m diabetic, have multiple sclerosis, or any other disease thus being a burden on the health system. Too often I have to explain to friends that homosexuality is for the most part not something people choose, but are oriented to. I love cats and science fiction…should I be persecuted by dog lovers and reality show freaks? How about bi-sexuals? Should we just cut one arm off? What if you’re single and prefer to stay that way? Nature has created us differently, so to all you homophobic do-gooders and proselytizing religionists …..get over it…..accept it….and remember to be tolerant of those who are different than yourself. As long as their worldview and philosophy don’t harm you or society in general we must stop fearing those ideas that don’t correspond with ours and maybe do a little more research to understand each other. Thanks for reading my rant.

  • Schaden Freud

    This one is a difficult call for me, especially since I haven’t read the whole pamphlet. Thing is though, if I got this pamphlet in the mail, I’d feel a bit threatened. I’d be thinking: do these nutjobs live in my neighbourhood? Should I be worried I might be attacked coming home from work or the pub or, worse, that my partner might be attacked?

    When someone tells you all about how they would like to brutally murder you, that’s intimidating even if they haven’t explicitly said they’re going to lynch you. Probably that’s what the authors wanted; it’s a kind of bullying, really. Yes, freedom of speech means freedom to say things others find abhorrent, but when you say something that makes others concerned for their personal safety you’ve crossed a line.

    So after thinking about it for a while, it’s my view that this was a hate crime and that the right to freedom of speech should not protect the authors of this pamphlet from prosecution.


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