THE BLOG
02/08/2007 04:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The New Anti-Blasphemy Laws?

There's an interesting controversy at San Francisco State University, captured well in this e-mail from the University to the College Republicans:

I am writing to you as President of the College Republicans to follow-up with you regarding the letter of complaint that was received by the Office of Student Programs and Leadership Development on Thursday, October 26, 2006, notifying the office of alleged violations of University policy. The complaint is in regards to alleged actions at a College Republican sponsored event, "Anti Terrorism Rally," that occurred in Malcolm X Plaza from 12-2 PM on October 17, 2006. The complaint describes alleged actions of walking on a banner with the word "Allah" written in Arabic script. I am writing to inform you that the Office of Student Programs and Leadership Development has concluded its investigation into the events that occurred on October, 17, 2006 in Malcolm X Plaza. The investigation was put in place to review the following alleged violations of University Policy as were addressed in the written complaint:

1. Allegations of attempts to incite violence and create a hostile environment

2. Allegations of actions of incivility (Standards for Student Conduct Title V, 41301)

Resources presented by interviewees during interview process for review include:
1. Standards for Student Conduct Title V, 41301

2. CUSP II Strategic Plan

3. California penal code

The Investigative report has been forwarded to the Student Organization Hearing Panel for review. The chair of SOHP ... [Y]ou as a student organization have the right to have a representative at any stage of possible disciplinary proceedings....

FIRE (The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) has more:

The College Republicans "offense" took place on October 17, 2006, when they held an anti-terrorism protest in SFSU's Malcolm X Plaza. During the protest, several members of the group stepped on butcher paper they had painted to resemble the flags of Hamas and Hezbollah. Unbeknownst to the protestors, the flags they had copied contain the word "Allah" written in Arabic script.

If you want more, you can read this story about the rally in the campus newspaper.

As FIRE points out, burning the American flag, and stepping on it, "is without question a constitutionally protected act of political protest"; stepping on flags of Hamas and Hezbollah, even when they contain religious symbols on them — or for that matter deliberately stepping on religious symbols — is equally protected.

Note, by the way, that the university is not simply trying to prevent violence here (which it in any event should do by preventing and punishing the violent responses to offensive student speech, not by punishing the speech itself, at least unless it fits within the narrow category of individually addressed insulting "fighting words," which doesn't apply here). The university is expressly investigating (with the threat of formal sanctions behind the investigation) the possibility that the students' speech is ideologically offensive — creates a "hostile environment" and is "incivil[]." A clear First Amendment violation, it seems to me.

And in the week before I saw the story on this incident, I ran across two articles by professors -- one a Muslim law professor at Washburn University, and one a professor of political science at Baltimore Hebrew University -- that in fact urged legal punishment for "defamation of religion" and "negative depiction of religion." Both professors called (though in different ways) on international legal principles to be used as models for suppressing certain harsh criticisms of religion. Both seem to contemplate a dramatic rollback of the First Amendment protection against legal suppression of blasphemous, anti-religious, or religiously offensive speech. Nor were they simply arguing for governments' not funding such speech, or for social norms of criticizing such speech. They were talking of legal punishment.

This, it seems to me, should alarm people who support free speech generally, and also those who particularly value the right to criticize religious beliefs, ideas, and practices, and even to criticize religion altogether. Consider one aspect of the prohibition suggested by the Washburn professor -- a prohibition on "the dissemination ... of ... xenophobic ideas ... aimed at any religion ... that constitute incitement to ... hostility." That would cover, among other things, many atheist criticisms of religion generally; many secularist criticisms of fundamentalist Christianity (or Islam or Judaism); condemnation of religious groups that are alleged to be cults or scams; many theological criticisms of a wide range of religions; and many pro-gay-rights or pro-women's-rights condemnations of religions that are seen as hostile to gays or women.

I would not like to see such speech suppressed, and I'm sorry that some American academics, both in their writings and in their administrative actions, seem to take a view that would indeed strip this speech of constitutional protection.