Free Speech Hellscapes. God Bless the U.S.A.

I know we have problems with free speech in this country. Free speech is being challenged all over the place, especially in colleges and universities. What used to be a sacrosanct principle of American life – the right to say what you think without retribution other than the social stigma you bring upon yourself – has been denigrated to the point where many college students simply reject the idea of free speech. These are some of the findings of an October 2022 survey by the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale University when college students were asked questions about free speech:

  • The number in favor of using violence to stop speech was 41%; the number opposed was 49% – the first time those opposed represented a minority.
  • When asked about cultures in which “some types of speech merit the death penalty” and whether they agreed or disagreed with the idea that “some speech can be so offensive that it merits such harsh punishment,” 48% agreed.
  • For the first time in the survey’s history, a plurality (48% vs. 44%) disagree that hate speech is protected by the First Amendment.
  • A record 63% of students reported being intimidated in sharing an opinion that differed from their peers, a jump of 13% from last year.
  • A record 58% of students reported being intimidated in sharing an opinion that differs from their professor, 8% higher than last year.
  • 80%, little changed from previous years, believe the First Amendment to the Constitution is an important amendment.
  • A slim plurality (45%-41%) continue to oppose speech codes regulating speech for students and faculty.

This is not promising. Think about it: 41% of college students favor using violence to stop speech, and 48% agreed with the statement that “some types of speech merit the death penalty.” This, in America.

But I am still glad to be living the good ol’ U.S. of A. After all, while some people may lose their jobs over the speech they employ, many times those institutions that fire or punish people for their speech get their comeuppance in the courts (though not always, sadly).

Three free speech cases have come up recently, two in Europe and one in Africa, that recommend that, with all our problems and attacks on free speech in the U.S., it’s still worse elsewhere.

At the elite Science Po dance school in Parish, France, a teacher named Valerie (she requested of news sources to use only her first name) was ousted for her persistent use of “discriminatory” language toward her students. The students complained. The administration investigated. The administration instructed Valerie to stop using the discriminatory language. Valerie refused, insisting that she would continue using the discriminatory language. So, she resigned (or was forced out, sources differ). What was the discriminatory language Valerie was using toward her students in class? She dared to call the male students “men” and the female students “women.” Valerie explained, “I say women on one side and men on the other because in dance there is a role for the man and a role for the woman. … That’s the reason that we separated.” A spokesperson for Science Po said, “We received a complaint from a student … backed up by several of them, according to which this teacher made remarks during her class that were discriminatory in nature in terms of the role of men in dance. We asked her to desist from doing so and she did not wish to and decided not to continue with her classes.” For her part, Valerie is claiming she is being censored. “They’re censoring me,” she said. I won’t bow down to the dictatorship. Forget about being politically correct. What’s next? Swan Lake with a hairy swan?” Swan Lake with a hairy swan. OK, that’s hilarious!

Too bad for Valerie, but at least she’s not facing the kind of punishment in store for Tonje Gjevjon. Ms. Gjevjon is a Norwegian filmmaker and actress. She is also a lesbian. She came under investigation by Norway’s authorities for a hate crime when she posted that men cannot be lesbians. This was in response to Christine Jentoft’s claims that she is a lesbian mother. Jentoft is a transgender female and activist who her calls herself a lesbian. Gjevjon posted on Facebook: “It’s just as impossible for men to become a lesbian as it is for men to become pregnant. Men are men regardless of their sexual fetishes.” Yep, that did it. Gjevjon was informed on November 17 that she was being investigated for breaking Norway’s penal code that criminalizes speech against “gender identity and gender expression.” Those found guilty of hate speech under the code face a fine or up to a year in prison for private remarks (imagine going to prison for your private remarks – watch what you say at the Christmas family dinner!), and a max of three years in prison for public remarks. Since Gjevjon’s comment was posted on Facebook, that’s a public remark. Another woman, Christina Ellingsen, also faces a three-year prison sentence for a similar accusation of transphobic hate speech made against her by Jentoft. Consider, too, that this scenario is not being played out in some third world country where dictionaries are scarce, or in a Soviet state that sends its political prisoners to the gulag. This is Norway. Norway is a Western nation, and the law that may well send these women to jail for hate speech was passed by a duly elected, representative Parliament. Yes, Norway has a king, but they also have a Prime Minister, a Parliament, and a Supreme Court. It wasn’t the king who passed this law. This is troubling. Regardless of how one feels about the bizarro world in which we now live where intelligent people actually debate whether men can be lesbians, it is disturbing that a person can be imprisoned for what they say, publicly or privately, that the government doesn’t like.

But while Ms. Gjevjon and Ms. Ellington are facing prison sentences, at least they’re not facing the death penalty (at least, not until those 48% of college students referenced above have their way). In 2020, Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, a Sufi Muslim and a musician, was convicted of blasphemy against Muhammed under the Sharia-based law of Kano State in Nigeria and sentenced to death. He was convicted, despite his having no legal representation, because he shared audio messages on WhatsApp of a song he composed. The court judged the song blasphemous toward Muhammed. His 2020 conviction, however, was overturned. In most American courts, I think, that would have resulted in the charges being dismissed and everyone going about their way. But, no, Sharif-Aminu is going to be tried again. He now sits in jail without bail. Alliance Defending Freedom International is representing him. ADF hopes that Sharif-Aminu’s case will result in the abrogation of the blasphemy laws in Nigeria. Sharif-Aminu is facing conviction and possible death, not because he intended blasphemy against Muhammed – he is, after all, a faithful Sunni Muslim – but because the court judged his song blasphemous.

As bad as things are getting on the free speech front in the United States, I don’t think anyone here has yet lost their job because they use the language of “men and women” generally to refer to a group of men and women. I don’t think anyone is facing a prison term for expressing their opinion on Facebook. And I doubt anyone is looking at a possible death sentence because the government didn’t like what they said on WhatsApp.

This isn’t to say that free speech isn’t being attacked in the U.S. It absolutely is. Neither is it to say that we should relax about defending free speech here because it’s not as bad as all that, compared to Europe and Africa. We need to apply every effort we can in protecting our Constitutional rights as free people, and that includes free speech. It is to say that we still have blessings to count as citizens of the United States, and that we need to be thankful for those blessings, while at the same time using the rights we have to protect them, so the extremists don’t turn our country into the free speech hellscapes that are Norway and Nigeria.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

 

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