In the broadest sense, "Blasphemy means speaking evil of sacred matters." So begins Leonard W. Levy's book Blasphemy. The Preface to Levy's book is worth quoting. His text "...is about the suppression of freedom of expression in the field of religious belief and experience; it is also about an inchmeal progression in the scope of freedom of expression. The past depicted here should not be forgotten or emulated. James Madison stated:
Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace and observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us. If this freedom be abused, it is an offense against God, not against man: To God, therefore, not to man, must an account of it be rendered.
In splendid ignorance of Madison's wholesome statement, the High Court in England this past week wrestled with the question of whether a private prosecution should be brought for blasphemy over Jerry Springer - The Opera. The facts are a bit convoluted: Jerry Springer - The Opera played theaters in Britain from October 2003 to July 2006, and in January of 2005 it was broadcast on the BBC. Two years after the broadcast aired, a Mr. Stephen Green, described by The Times of London as "of an evangelical group called Christian Voice", applied to the City of Westminster Magistrates' Court to issue a summons for the start of a private prosecution against Mark Thompson, the Director-General of the BBC and others. District Judge Caroline Tubbs refused to issue the summons, and the appeal now on-going ensued.
As the Times with admirable restraint described it, in the second half of the opera "...Jerry Springer descended into hell to be fought over by the forces of God and Satan and confronted by a selection of characters from the first half 'who now occupy various Biblical roles but in the most contemptible and scurrilous manner.'" Frances Gibbs, legal editor of the Times helpfully stated, "Blasphemous libel is the publication of any matter that offends, insults or vilified the Deity, or Christ, or the Christian religion. It is irrelevant whether there was an intention to blaspheme - the intention to publish the material is sufficient."
This has opened the proverbial can of worms directly in the collective lap of the High Court judges. It has reopened the issue of whether the coercive power of the State should be put in the service of one - and only one - religion, and it has kindled anew the question of whether Britain's blasphemy laws conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights and, if they do, which body of law should control. It is, at bottom, a question of whether the performance of a piece of undoubted artistic merit (and this is no mere piece of pornography given a thin veneer of "literary merit" by having an actor quote Hamlet whilst engaging in several shocking variations on the theme of "insert Tab A into Slot B") should subject the presenter to a period of incarceration.
Michael Gledhill, QC, appearing for the allegedly aggrieved Mr. Green, argued that the complaint arose from the manner in which the commentary was made. His goal, as stated, is to "set a legal limit on the way in which such debate can be conducted." In other words, one may criticize the Deity, Christ or the Christian religion but one may not do so effectively. Mr. Gledhill, QC, took note of the riots that occurred when a Danish newspaper published cartoons ridiculing Mohammed and of the Sikh community's violent reaction to the play Behzti (Dishonour) which resulted in an attack on the theater. What Mr. Green and Christian Voice want, apparently, is for the law to do for Christianity what wild mobs of Islamic hooligans did for Mohammed or a group of crazed Sikhs did in defense of their religion. It is, at bottom, an arrogant exercise in stating "There are lines that cannot be crossed, and we will tell you where they are." It is, withal, yet another manifestation of the Twenty-First Century's insane nostalgia for the Fourteenth.
What all of these zanies have in common is a total and utter distrust of the ability of the citizenry to think for themselves. Enlisting the coercive power of the State - or of the mob - is crucial to their mindset. You, Mr. or Ms. Citizen, cannot be trusted to determine for yourself what is fit to be seen, we will decide it for you. If we think that Jerry Springer - The Opera is corrosive to your morals, we will not permit you to see it. We will tell you what it is proper for you to see and what it is proper for you to think. This week we will seek to ban performance of Jerry Springer - The Opera, next week we may seek to ban performance of Verdi's Rigoletto (frightfully immoral goings-on), Alban Berg's Lulu (terribly smutty) or Wagner's Tannhäuser (too disrespectful of religion). It is called a "slippery slope" for a reason.
The freedom of speech has always meant the freedom to offend. The guarantee is hardly needed for decorous, considerate, sensitive debate; it exists to safeguard the marketplace of ideas, and in that marketplace sometimes the ideas are expressed in a crude, robust and offensive manner. The marketplace of ideas is messy, all too often rough-and-tumble, and sometimes people are offended. Since the alternative is Stalinism in one form or another, it has its supporters.
The judges of the High Court would be well to remember Leonard W. Levy's wise advice: The history of prosecutions and persecutions for blasphemy "...should not be forgotten or emulated."