Q: What is the obligation of a Western, democratic government to protect individual freedoms in light of a realistic terrorist threat? Are the producers of South Park right to forfeit their freedom of expression in the interests of protecting their employees? Are the governments of Europe right to ban burqas in the interest of fostering a more open society?
When did the home of the brave become the land of the easily intimidated? First Yale University caves, then Random House and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and now even the intrepid Comedy Central. Is there an American institution left – venerable or otherwise – willing to stand up for freedom of expression?
South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker didn’t ask for “protection.” In fact, they think the censorship “sucked,” to use one of their more printable expressions.
Of course, South Park offends. Nobody is spared from Jesus to Joseph Smith. But freedom of expression doesn’t mean very much if it doesn’t include the right to offend. In a free society, blasphemy, however outrageous, is protected speech – and no violation of religious freedom.
And of course, the producers of South Park have the right to bleep every mention of “Mohammed” – they are not the government. But self-censorship out of fear is an assault on free speech that undermines our democratic values and threatens our liberty. As a people committed to robust freedom of speech, Americans must resist every attempt to silence speech through fear and intimidation.
Government bans on burqas, on the other hand, are violations of religious freedom. For the Muslim woman who chooses to cover herself in this way, the burqa is an expression of faith – a matter of conscience that is a fundamental human right. In France and Belgian this and other claims of conscience are often trumped by the government’s determination to prevent “Islamization” of French and Belgian culture. The French, after all, ban even headscarves from being worn by Muslim girls to state schools.
Far from fostering openness, anti-burqa laws close European societies to those who refuse to conform to the dress and customs of the dominant culture.
Public safety, however, is a legitimate state interest. If government authorities can make a compelling case for some, limited restrictions on wearing the burqa – for example, the need for an identifiable photograph on a driver’s license for law enforcement and other purposes – then and only then should the state have the power to interfere with the free exercise of religion.