Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"Defamation of Religions versus Freedom of Expression: Finding the Balance" (Blasphemy Literature Review)

Vaughn E. James, Defamation of Religions versus Freedom of Expression: Finding the Balance, 2008-2009 Fides et Libertas 43.

This article is noteworthy insofar as it's the first substantive article I've seen that supports the idea of prohibiting the "defamation of religion" using international law. To be precise, the author would substitute the phrase "The Protection of Religious Sensibilities" for the phrase "defamation of religion" because "defamation" already has a precise legal meaning. He is also careful to note that freedom of expression is a value worth protecting. However, James states that:

"[W]hat I envisage is a system whereby men, women and children would separate the discussion of theological issues and disagreements over these issues from the making of negative statements about the people who subscribe to one theological viewpoint or another. The former type of discussion is an exercise of freedom of expression; the latter is unacceptable. Whether we term the latter 'defamation of religions' . . . or something else, it is something we as a people must aspire to eradicate." (p. 55)

The difficulty with James' position, in my opinion, is that it is often impossible to distinguish criticism of a religion from criticism of those who adhere to that religion. To say "Christianity is evil" is different than saying "Christians are evil", but the distinction is a fine one in the tumult of everyday life and the popular press. Nor is the distinction likely to satisfy those whose "religious sensibilities" are fragile and easily offended. Further, history is full of new or fledging religious movements phrasing their beliefs in terms of attacks on religious leaders and their adherents: Martin Luther, for example, was scorching in his attacks on the Pope and Catholic priests, as were Jehovah's Witnesses in the first part of the twentieth century. Although I understand James' desire to suppress the sort of speech that can lead to hatred and the incitement of violence, the distinction he is attempting to draw here is simply not sustainable nor sufficiently protective of freedom of expression and religion.

The article also provides a brief history of the various U.N. resolutions, an extract from the text of the 2005 Commission for Human Rights resolution, and a short but helpful overview of the five major international law documents that protection freedom of expression.

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