Fine Lines

The National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) recently released a report, True Liberty in a New Media Age. The report examines the practices of Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and the ISPs Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast with regard freedom of speech. The conclusion is that all of these organizations, with the exception of Twitter, actively censor religious content and viewpoints.

The U.S based NRB, which despite its name, claims to be an international organization, represents not just any religious broadcasters, but those of an evangelical Christian orientation. Given that this branch of religion is not known for tolerance, complaints that their views on matters such as homosexuality (“inappropriate conduct that can be changed through a Christ-centered spiritual transformation”) may not get a lot of sympathy.

Meanwhile in Canada, the Supreme Court is considering whether or not the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission has the authority to prosecute an anti-gay rights advocate. Speech that promotes violence against gays is already illegal, but simply speaking out against gay rights is currently a gray area. Writing of the case in the National Post, lawyer Aidan Johnson argues that while there is a cost to not censoring anti-gay sentiments, it is the right thing to do, as censorship would be worse.

Johnson’s column brings to mind the famous quote usually attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I decided to find the original french statement for this blog, because sometimes something is lost or twisted in translation, although the english version does alliterate well. Here is what I discovered.

1. Voltaire did write in english.
2. Voltaire is a pen name. His real name was François-Marie Arouet. He died in 1778.
3. The quote was included as a description of attitude in a biography written by Stephen G. Tallentyre in 1906.
4. Tallentyre is a pen name. Her real name was Evelyn Beatrice Hall.
5. Hall claimed she was paraphrasing Voltaire’s line, “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.” Good advice, if less dramatic.
6. A later writer claimed Hall may have been inspired by Voltaire’s line in a letter, “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” Touching, though again less dramatic.
(All assuming this page and the dreaded Wikipedia are more or less accurate – not without risk.)

Why this digression into wheels within wheels? Just a reminder that sometimes what seems simple is complicated. The right thing is not clear.

The NRB report is a product of the John Milton project for Religious Free Speech. “Religious Free Speech” is not quite an oxymoron, but it raises questions. The report may be biased, and its analysis may be flawed. Maybe the censoring of intolerant views is not a bad thing. But as Mr. Johnson points out, free speech was the shield of the early gay rights groups, back when speaking out for gay rights was as scandalous as speaking against gay rights is today. At the very least, we need to take seriously the claim that powerful new media corporations are censoring religious content, and consider the implications of that.

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