Pope Francis Gets It Right on Free Speech


When I was a kid, one of my favorite shows on TV was Hogan’s Heroes. Watching the wise-cracking prisoners-of-war from the various allied countries get the better of those wacky Germans every week was my adolescent idea of good entertainment. Imagine my surprise when my 8th grade teacher, Miss Theodore, whose family had fled the horrors of the Nazi takeover of Greece, announced that this show was an abomination, the product of warped minds and should never have seen the light of day.   We didn’t quite see what the problem was, even after she explained how many people died, how many atrocities were committed, how POW camps were no joke. We were too young. Miss Theodore wasn’t the only critic.   I remember Mad Magazine parodying Hogan’s Heroes, ending with some producer’s decision to go even further and carry the light-hearted, wise-guy, twit-the-Nazis humor into a TV show set in a concentration camp.

Hogan’s Heroes was highly offensive, in terrible taste. This brings us directly to the Charlie Hebdo tragedy. The cartoons in question were in terrible taste. We value freedom of expression, but should there be “decency limits” to keep satire from becoming disgusting?   In 1988 the US Supreme Court weighed in to say “no”—disgusting is allowed, in fact pretty much anything is allowed, because if you try to use an adjective to draw a line, an adjective like “outrageous speech” or “disgusting speech”, that adjective will be too subjective for the law to make sense of.   What is outrageous for me, may not seem outrageous to you. The court voted 9 to zero in the case of Hustler Magazine v. Jerry Falwell, so, friends, you are now free to write a parody in which a public figure loses his virginity with his mother in an outhouse. God Bless America!

The Court got this one wrong and at this juncture we can bring in as a witness none other than Pope Francis, who, as usual, gets it right. We need to protect free speech, but not ALL speech.   As the Pope said (I paraphrase) “If someone cursed my mother, I’d punch him in the nose.”   Let’s call this “the Mother Test for free speech. If someone’s mother is a bad person, doing bad things, like selling drugs for example, it’s right and proper that some enterprising journalist writes that up and exposes her. But even if that woman has gone over to the Dark Side, there is no need to write about her in scurrilous terms, calling her a slut, a bitch, or hurling scatological invective at her.

Religions are like mothers. They create a special bond. The Catholics even refer to the Holy Mother Church because it nurtures and protects. To write something or say something criticizing a religion is hard to take for the faithful, as it would be if you heard your mother criticized, but a free society must allow that criticism to be heard. However to couch that criticism in language from the gutter is unnecessary and dangerous. It should come under the heading of “fighting words” which the Supreme Court acknowledged in 1942 as NOT covered under free speech, but since then has narrowed the definition of what constitutes “fighting words” to exclude words aimed at religion that “arouse anger, alarm or resentment”. That weakened the doctrine considerably. What they should have said was, if the words are obscene and deliberately ridicule a religion they are not covered by the First Amendment. We can have our critique, we can have a robust debate, but maintain a diplomatic respect at the same time.

Hustler and Charlie Hebdo were deliberately obscene. You can only push people so far before they explode.   I do not see it as “letting the terrorists win” to outlaw this kind of speech.  I would think that police forces around the Free World who now have to protect the likes of Charlie Hebdo would agree.

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