Monday, March 09, 2009

Atheist Bus Campaigns and Free Speech

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."

10 comments:

Brian Westley said...

I have to disagree with you on this one; the Ottawa Transit Committee and Ottawa City Council are government agencies, deciding on what ads are permitted on city-owned buses.

The Ottawa Transit Committee has permitted religious ads in the past, and some council members, such as Marianne Wilkinson, obviously only want their religious views promoted.

It IS a free speech issue when government officials allow "favored" religious points of view and disallow "unfavored" points of view like atheism.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Brian Westley

It IS a free speech issue when government officials allow "favored" religious points of view and disallow "unfavored" points of view like atheism.

Nope.

That is the very definition of a "fair speech" issue.

David said...

"There's probably a God, so quit enjoying your life and worry." I'd love to see what would happen if they tried to post that.

I think this one's a pretty good message as atheist campaigns go, much better than the bus ads in some other countries. I wonder how much money it would take to pay off the right people and keep it going in spite of the resistance.

What I especially don't like about the whole story is all the people who hear the news report and say, "This is just more proof that atheists won't be happy until everyone else is miserable." If they're going to call us "grinches" and "curmudgeons" for something as low-key as the British campaign, I don't know what options are left to us. I guess they're just mad because they still think spreading atheism is spreading misery, and the only possible motive is hate.

David said...

"Fair speech" is more significant when the government is involved, because I'd prefer the government itself had no speech. If they're using public resources in any way to broadcast purely religious (or antireligious) messages, I have a problem with it. No fairness about it, it's in the spirit of freedom of religion that we don't get to vote which religion to promote nationwide.

OTOH, legally speaking, public obscenity is exempt from any free speech concerns last I checked, and they're painting it as obscenity by claiming it's offensive (which is insane, and exactly why we need it).

Doug S. said...

"Fair speech" issues are generally regarded as being a subset of "free speech" issues when the one being unfair is a government.

Arguing over words is usually stupid, though.

anton said...

And then, in other parts of Canada, the United Church has countered with a campaign of their own which says, "There is a God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life!" Personally, making a "freedom of speech" issue, as Alonzo points out, is not the issue. It is a matter of fairness.

That, fellow Atheists, is a point to press. The other guys are not being nice and many of their followers couldn't stand the heat it if it was pointed out what congregation the decision maker attended and then "make IT the news item". For example, try this headline on for style, "Grantham Avenue First Church United member nixes Atheist Ads." I don't know if that would work in US America but it certainly works in Canada.

Readers may enjoy this post about the atheist bus campaign.

http://www.withoutgods.net/2009-2-28-front-1.htm

Brian Westley said...

It IS a free speech issue when government officials allow "favored" religious points of view and disallow "unfavored" points of view like atheism.

Nope.

That is the very definition of a "fair speech" issue.


As David says, not when the government is involved.

If a right is violated, suing in court is an option (and that is being considered in this case, I believe). I've never heard of a "right" to fair speech.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Brian Westley

There is a right to equal treatment under the law.

Brian Westley said...

There is a right to equal treatment under the law.

Which is why I would consider this case to be a free speech case. The speech of an atheist group is not being allowed by a government agency which nonetheless allows other religious views in that same forum.

anna said...

Fascinating argument. Just in time too - I am making a short documentary about this campaign in Calgary, and I am interviewing a professor of law this week, and this is exactly the sort of argument I will talk to her about.
Keep it up!