I have spent a few weeks in the realm of moral theory and want to get into the realm of moral practice. The first issue I want to tackle concerns a campaign in Ottawa, Canada to put a sign on the city busses that says, There's probably no God, so quit worrying and enjoy your life.
The Ottawa Transit Committee has rejected this advertisement on the grounds that it is "demeaning and insulting" to other religions. The Ottawa City Council has backed this decision.
The organizations that are trying to place these advertisements are claiming that this is a violation of their right to freedom of speech.
They are wrong.
More importantly, their error puts them in the same camp as others who are using the rhetoric of free speech to violate freedom of speech. It puts them in the same camp as those who declare that a right to freedom of speech somehow implies a right to immunity from criticism – a right that says, "In the interests of freedom of thought, of freedom, and of religion, no person shall be permitted to criticize my beliefs in any way."
The doctrine of freedom of speech as I have defended it in this blog says that the right is a right to immunity from violence for what one says. It would be wrong for anybody to threaten harm to an individual who has merely uttered words – to threaten him with imprisonment or death, or to threaten him with private violence against his person or property.
However, it is fully consistent with the right to freedom of speech to respond with words and private actions. It is no violation of freedom of speech for me to stand up and say not only that Ben Stein is mistaken in the views he expressed in his documentary, "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed." In fact, it would be a violation of my freedom of speech to put me under threat of harm for saying such things.
Private actions include any action that a person is morally permitted to perform for whatever reasons one might have. It includes such things as who to vote for, what to buy, which companies to buy it from, who to invite over for dinner, and which charitable organizations to donate to (if any).
It is no violation of freedom of speech to refuse to give money to an organization who is promoting something one disagrees with.
It is also no violation of freedom of speech to refuse to give space on the side of a bus to somebody who is promoting something one disagrees with.
In fact, using a "free speech" argument in this case gives cover to those who claim that their right to "freedom of speech" implies a prohibition on condemnation and private acts on the part of others that negatively affect them. It gives them cover because, ultimately, it defends the principle that condemnation and private actions constitute a violation of free speech.
Even though this is not a free speech issue, there is still just cause for moral outrage. There are two moral complaints that can be leveled against those who support this decision.
The first is that, even though the decision is not a violation of free speech, it is certainly a violation of fair speech. If the transit companies have allowed the posting of any sign that explicitly stated or even assumed the truth of the proposition, "There probably is a God," then it needs good reason to prohibit any advertisement that promotes the proposition, "There probably isn't a God." Otherwise, they are not being fair.
The second, and more important, is the fact that this hostility to the proposition, "There probably isn't a God" is based on the worse forms of bigotry. It is based on holding beliefs and attitudes towards atheists that no decent person would share.
It is particularly obnoxious and worthy of condemnation for the government to hold and defend attitudes of prejudice and hostility towards its own law-abiding citizens. It should be an affront to every voter that a government take a position of hostility towards citizens whose only crime is that they do not agree with the religious views of those in power.
Actually, not only is it a mistake to portray this as a violation of free speech, it is actually an insult to atheists to do so. The objection being raised against the advertisements is that they are "demeaning and insulting." The free speech defense says, "I do not care if they are demeaning and insulting, I have a right to be demeaning and insulting if I want to."
The fair speech and bigotry defense says, "The type of person who is insulted by the fact that there are atheists, agnostics, and free thinkers in this community are morally equivalent to those who are insulted by the presence of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in this community. These are not the types of sensitivities that governments should be protecting. They are even more obviously not the types of sensitivities that people in government should have."