Free Speech Cases Highlight Dangers of Catering to Religious Sensitivities

By John Walker

Given its location and relevance, you’ve probably heard of the January debacle at Hamline University. You probably haven’t heard as much about the album poster censored across the pond, but we’ll tackle that after the rundown of this first case.

For those unfamiliar with why Hamline is in the news, or interested in reviewing the timeline with more detail, here’s a  summary of what happened:

Back in September, adjunct Art History Professor Erika López Prater disseminated an 11-page syllabus warning students that she would show historical art depicting religious figures, including the Prophet Muhammad, and offering to work with students should they feel uncomfortable viewing these images. Note that the majority of mainstream Muslims consider viewing images of Muhammad to be sacrilegious.

On Oct. 6, the paintings of the Prophet Muhammad were shown in an online class following additional warnings. At least one student still viewed the images, took significant issue with them, and discussed the situation with the professor after the class. Emails, escalations, and apologies began.

On Nov. 7, the school sent an email to the student body condemning the incident as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic” following internal faculty discussions. (Side note: most of my info on this matter comes from the reporting of the student newspaper The Oracle, which I strongly recommend reading due to its direct contact with many of the people involved.)

Some time leading up to the end of the semester, the professor was informed that her services were no longer needed (i.e., her contract would not be renewed) despite previous conversations with her department head suggesting that she was to continue teaching.

On Jan. 8, the news broke to a national audience via a New York Times interview with Prater, followed by a mostly negative response. On the 11th, the president of Hamline released a defensive statement, triggering another wave of condemnation save for a supportive response from CAIR-MN, Minnesota’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (which was notably contradicted afterwards in a statement by the national CAIR).

In the days since, the faculty of the university voted overwhelmingly to request the president to step down and the school announced its intention to host conversations around the intersection of academic freedom, student care, and religion. Prater also announced her intention to sue the school.

This event could spawn dozens of conversations on a wide range of subjects, both regarding the incident itself and the ensuing storm in the media. 

Why did so many press outlets lead with reports that the professor was “fired” as if to imply that the professor displayed the image and then was booted out the door the same day? Why do so many conservative outlets depict this as just another example of the absurdities of liberal campus culture when nearly every relevant voice has spoken out against the University’s action? And what do the answers to these questions tell us about the role of hypocrisy, outrage, and oversimplification in journalism and politics?

Why did a university representative call Prater’s actions “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic” when, by nearly all other accounts, the warnings leading up to the event were perfectly considerate, clear, and professionally handled? What happens when the offended group is the only source for feedback, blinding those involved to a broader and more neutral perspective? Can genuine offense be both sincerely acknowledged and tactfully dismissed?

Where might society evolve if mere offense sways us too far toward self-imposed censorship? What is left when, as Ray Bradbury put it, everyone starts “running about with lit matches,” feeling they have “the will, the right, and the duty to douse the kerosene and light the fuse”? Can we respect religious individuals while drawing the line at giving their religion direct sway over the actions of others?

The phrasing of these questions alone likely hint at where I stand, and where, I assume, many humanists stand as well. So I will not belabor you with any more opinions before shedding light on the next case which I find, if not as engaging, perhaps more concerning.

Across the pond, HumanistsUK became a prominent voice speaking out against the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) when the ASA announced that it had banned a poster advertising 30-year-old former-pop-star-turned-rocker Demi Lovato’s “Holy Fvck” album. The poster in question featured the provocative title alongside an image of Lovato in bondage lying on a dingy, cross-shaped mattress.

The reasons for removing the posters essentially amounted to “it alludes to a curse word which children might see” and “it connects sexuality to the crucifix in a way likely to offend Christians.” Indeed, I’d be clutching my pearls if I had any!

It’s worth noting that the UK has no equivalent of the First Amendment, and the ASA is not a government body. Regardless, the concern here is that this agency has effectively universal control over advertising space in the UK, and it based its decision in this case on four, yes F-O-U-R complaints, presumably from, almost by definition, four of the most easily-offended individuals in the country. And this was after the record company that bought the advertising space got explicit approval from the agency to run the ads, which is not required.

As HumanistsUK writes in a post on the matter, it’s possible to imagine that the poster may have ended up censored due to the allusion to the curse word on its own. As much as some of us might roll our eyes at the idea that children must be protected from such words, it’s not a battle many care to fight, especially to the extent that these sorts of rulings tone down undesirably extreme or “merely” shocking language in advertisements. Rather, the deplorable part is that this is one in a series of many rulings in the last couple of decades which explicitly refer to the offense likely to be caused to Christians. In effect, it amounts to a blasphemy ban, something most Western nations have long since left behind.

Together, the Hamline and Lovato cases demonstrate flip sides of the same coin; an understandable if misapplied desire to make a safe space for a traditionally marginalized group on one hand, and a government-adjacent entity protecting a traditionally powerful group from “serious offense” on the other. In both cases, the apparently fragile emotions of a small number of religious individuals are given power, either from the bottom up or the top down, to regulate, censor, or retaliate against the fair and justifiable actions of secular individuals in shared spaces despite their proactive diligence. 

As we look forward, however, it’s not hard to find some solace. The backlash against the Hamline administration’s actions was swift, severe, and nearly unanimous, and the undue privilege given to Christians seems set to run out in the UK as demographics continue to shift toward a more secular society.

But in neither case should we take our position for granted. We must continue to be eloquent, respectful, yet forceful in our defense of our secular ideals, and we cannot assume that the old religious guard will fade quietly into the night.

John Walker is a member of the HumanistsMN Board.


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