President Obama speaks to the United Nations General Assembly in New York… (Olivier Douliery / Abaca…)
President Obama did an admirable job in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly in explaining why the United States does not punish those who engage in offensive speech like the infamous video defaming the prophet Muhammad. He was more expansive in defending protection for unbridled free speech than was Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, though not to the extent of explicitly challenging calls by Muslim leaders -- including the prime minster of Turkey, a NATO ally -- for "international legal regulations against attacks on what people deem sacred."
But a couple of things about Obama’s speech struck me as odd. One was a strange moment of self-reference: "As president of our country and commander in chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day -- and I will always defend their right to do so."
I’m sure Obama was not equating himself with Muhammad, Jesus or other venerated religious figures, but the juxtaposition was awkward and will probably inspire some comment-board complaints by Obamaphobes who believe the president seems himself in messianic terms.
In the same paragraph, Obama made a pitch for American almost-exceptionalism when it comes to laws against blasphemy. “Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense," the president said. "Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs.”
Well, not exactly. Blasphemy laws remain on the books in some states, though they are dead letters. According to Massachusetts General Law Section 36: "Whoever willfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars, and may also be bound to good behavior."
In 1977, my home state of Pennsylvania passed a law prohibiting the use in a corporate name of "blasphemy," "profane cursing or swearing" or words that "profane the Lord's name." The law was passed after complaints by religious leaders about a gun shop called "The Damn Gun Shop." A federal judge struck down the law 33 years later in a case involving a film producer who wanted to call his company "I Choose Hell Productions."
(Pennsylvania is an old hand at blasphemy legislation. In 1989, vandals scrawled a pro-PLO slogan on a menorah erected on the steps of the Pittsburgh City-County Building. A policeman told reporters that the culprit, if caught, would be charged with the obscure offense of "desecration of a venerated object." The joke in Pittsburgh at the time was that the law was passed to protect the Steelers logo.)
The most famous court decision involving desecration of a venerated object was the Supreme Court’s 1989 ruling striking down a Texas law that made it a crime to burn the American flag as a political protest. Opposition to the ruling was fierce. Had Congress approved a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision -- and the amendment failed to achieve the required two-thirds by only one vote in the Senate in 2006 -- it’s quite possible that the necessary three-fourths of the states would have ratified it.
So perhaps Americans aren’t as robust in our support for free speech as Obama suggested. Mock our religion -- or our flag -- and we may not engage in violence, but we’re willing to throw the book at you, at least until a court makes us come to our senses.
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