Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Quoting Exodus: Religious Liberty, Incitement and the Free Speech Hypocrisy

by Nomad

Two seemingly-unrelated situations involving free speech, come together in this post to expose America's first amendment hypocrisy.
Most of us know that free speech is not absolute. But why should some forms of free speech be restricted except when it comes from religious leaders? Why only Christian leaders? Why is hate speech allowed to hide behind the shield of religious liberty?

Often you'll see news stories and you think, there has to be more to this. If you take it a face value then the whole thing is just too stupid / ridiculous / scary to be believed. Or, at least, you don't want to believe it could happen in the US. Here's an example of what I mean.

The Evans Case
According to a local news channel, a 31-year-old Muhlenberg County, Kentucky man posted heavy metal song lyrics on his Facebook account on August 24th and three days later, James Evans was charged with "terroristic threatening.”

On Wednesday last week Evans was finally released on bail after spending a full eight days in jail. He has been told the case would be deferred for six months and he would have to undergo a mental evaluation.
The article quotes Mike Drake, the Muhlenberg County school resource officer, explaining that multiple agencies received calls concerned about the post. Other than that, the county attorney and the school resource officer for the Muhlenberg county schools have declined to comment about the Evans case.

Whether or not Evans added any personal comments with the lyric is not mentioned in any of  the articles. One assumed he did not. If not, then it seems as though the lyrics alone were considered the threat.  Nevertheless the warrant says Evans was arrested because, "he threatened to kill students and or staff at school."

Evans' sister Ashelynn states the common sense view. While she doesn't agree with the lyrics, there was no call for an arrest for posting them. She said:
"Whenever we found out that he actually got arrested for lyrics, we were all shocked . We couldn't believe that you could do that or get in trouble for that. I don't personally agree with the band or the music but I agree that you should have the choice to listen to it if you want to."
Evans, reunited with his family, was asked by reporters to comment.
"It's nonsense. I feel like my civil rights have been violated. You know first amendment freedom of speech out the window. Even all the guys I was in the cell with they thought it was nonsense themselves. I had several officials tell me it was nonsense that there was no reason why I should have even been here."
Unfortunately the article leaves out a lot of information. Fortunately, another local source supplies with a few of the missing details. The song lyrics in question came from a California metal band called Exodus. The lyrics are admittedly gruesome, depicting a first hand account of a school shooting. (Here are the song lyrics in their entirety)
“Student bodies lying dead in the halls, a blood splattered treatise of hate. Class dismissed is my hypothesis, gun fire ends in debate.”
Hardly what most people would call artful. It doesn't seem to advocate violence directly but it could be interpreted as a comment of a society where hate is taught in schools, in churches, on television, every place. 

In any case, all that talk of rage and hate and killing people was more than enough to send easily excited local parents to the Muhlenberg County school district flying to dial the police.  
In the midst of this hysteria, there are some points to keep in mind. Evans isn't the original author of the lyrics. Evans has, by his own admission, posted heavy metal lyrics from other heavy metal groups. Furthermore, there is no special bans or guidelines on posting heavy metal lyrics on Facebook.  
The song itself was originally recorded in 2010- a full four years ago- and nobody has even taken down the Youtube video from the song. The band has in fact been around for 34 years  and has sold over 5 million albums worldwide as of 2013. Their CDs can be purchased in most music outlets that carry heavy metal. 
That would suggest that if Evans is guilty of "terrorist threatening", then the band members, the record company that produced and profited from the music, and the stores that sold the CDs all must be arrested too.

If that's the case, then we should all be worried. When musicians, artists, writers   can be thrown in jail on terrorist charges based on the content of their work, then democracy itself is under threat.

A Closer Look at un-Free Speech
There's a lot of ignorance about the constitutional limits of free speech. Free speech was never absolute and unrestricted. 

For some reason, some people -especially people on the seemingly anonymous world of the Net- mistakenly believe that all speech free and legal. 

That's never been true. Libel and slander laws, for instance, are legally acceptable ways free speech has been limited. So-called free speech zones and laws requiring permits to demonstrate are all forms of restricting free speech. According to a Supreme Court ruling in 1974, making false statements of fact is- rather surprisingly in the age of Fox News- not protected. (That's a rather ambiguous rule, however. It really needs a more rigorous examination by the courts.) 

The Supreme Court has throughout American history- with uneven success- wrestled with the matter, trying to distinguish between what is and what is not acceptable speech. After the Patriot Act and the new age of terrorist propaganda, that all became so much harder.
Turning back to the charge against Evans, what is the actual definition of a terrorist threat? Apparently there are slight variances from state to state. but according to the most general description, it is "a declaration of intent to commit a crime of violence against another with the intent of threatening a person, building, facility, or public or private habitat."

In the Evans case, the lyrics alone do not seem, therefore, to quality under this definition. A fair court would probably find the lyrics irresponsible, but clearly not an declaration to harm. 

Related to this is the offense of incitement to violence. That crime is defined as,   "engaging in conduct designed to urge or incite another to commit any offense of violence." 
However, for speech to qualify as a incitement, there are certain requirements: the speech must be specific- like giving a direct order-, and it must also have the intent and the likelihood of causing imminent violence. The more specific, the stronger the case. 

Again, the Evans case -based on the lyrics alone- doesn't seem to fall under that definition. All in all, it sounds like a good case for false arrest and a civil case for violations to first amendment rights.

Hate in Harlem and Chattanooga
That brings me to another completely different example of a kind of  free speech which has been exercised more and more of late. Is religious speech absolutely protected from legal restrictions?  
What happens when religious free speech entails promoting or condoning violence against a particular group? 

Here's an example. The leader of ATLAH World Missionary Church in New York’s Harlem neighborhood Pastor James David Manning stepped into the limelight by making some fairly specific racist and homophobic remarks. 
More importantly he is on record as saying that "the appropriate response" to anybody that promotes homosexuality as a lifestyle and demands equality would be "to stone them back to the Stone Age, or stone them back to hell.” 

If that message wasn't clear enough, outside his church, there was a sign above the door "Jesus would stone homos" and "Stoning is still the law."
(That sign was removed but only after it was defaced by an unknown member of the public.)

Sadly, the Harlem pastor is not the only religious figure to push the limits of legal free speech in the name of Jesus. In Tennessee Brainerd Baptist Church Senior Pastor Robby Gallaty told his congregation
God said that the sins of the people had infected the very land in which they live. So what happens to people who engage in this activity, this sexual immoral activity? Go to Leviticus 20, God gives us the punishment for engaging in these sins… ‘If a man sleeps with a man as with a woman, they have both committed a detestable thing. They must be put to death. And their blood is on their own hands.’
Isn't this incitement to violence? Kill them and in the eyes of God, he seems to say, you will not be guilty of sin. Very much in the manner of any jihadist

Hard Questions
That kind of loose talk opens a lot of First Amendment questions.
  • Are the pastor's words tenets of faith, or an actual incitement to violence? 
  • Does it make a difference whether those words come from a church leader or an average citizen? 
  • Do authority figures have a greater responsibility when exercising their free speech rights? 
  • Because the impact of the free speech of authorities is greater, should they treated differently than more casual free speech?   
And finally, there's a greater quandary to consider:
  • Are certain religious creed's invitation to violence more acceptable than others? Had this been a Muslim cleric calling upon his followers to shoot Jews or blow up Christian buildings in the name of Allah, would this have been tolerated by the authorities and the public in general?
  • Should this pastor be held legally responsible if one of his flock takes his spiritual advice too literally?
This is not an academic question. If you need an example of what can happen when religious leaders get carried away you only need to look at the Middle East and the easily-ignitable sectarian violence there. 
Should you think the Midwest is safe from the same kind of faith-based anarchy, or that Christianity is immune from such violence, you might want to think again.

The Word of God?
Leviticus, Exodus, Deuteronomy and other books of the Old Testament, incidentally, advocate a lot of anti-social activity that would be considered illegal by our 21st century standards. 
Listen to the author of the Book of Deuteronomy 13 explains (in no uncertain terms) how to handle family members to leave the faith.
Do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone them to death, because they tried to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
After you murder your family, the next step is to do the same for your town, according to the Old Testament. The book says that if you learn that the people in your town worship strange gods, then you are obligated to slaughter everybody, even their cows and those poor innocent chickens.
You must certainly put to the sword all who live in that town. You must destroy it completely, both its people and its livestock. You are to gather all the plunder of the town into the middle of the public square and completely burn the town and all its plunder as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God. That town is to remain a ruin forever, never to be rebuilt, and none of the condemned things are to be found in your hands. Then the Lord will turn from his fierce anger, will show you mercy, and will have compassion on you. He will increase your numbers, as he promised on oath to your ancestors— because you obey the Lord your God by keeping all his commands that I am giving you today and doing what is right in his eyes.
And the people of Kentucky think that quoting the heavy metal band Exodus is bad but quoting from the Book of Exodus is perfectly ok? The lyrics only describe the mayhem, the religious tract gives the same kind of slaughter God's   divine approval.
Gallaty's Chattanooga congregation must rely solely on its pastor to know which people to stone, how to sell a daughter in slavery, when to stone your own children, what to do if woman having her menstrual period touches you and under what conditions a woman should be punished for being raped.

Today we are living in a country where pastors can say just about anything without fear, even to preach for the extermination of a particular minority in God's name. Despite that, they continue to complain that heathens and atheist and liberals are trying to limit their religious freedoms.

And yet a Kentucky man who posts heavy metal lyrics on his private Facebook account can somehow wind up spending a week in jail. Even when those lyrics describe in graphic detail the carnage and misery all that hate can stir up in some people's minds.