Free speech is still needed

Tuesday the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of NIFLA v. Becerra, in which Pro-Life crisis pregnancy centers were appealing to the court for relief from California’s laws demanding that they provide information to their clients about where they can obtain an abortion.

New York’s Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, issued a statement, stating, “Pro-Life pregnancy care centers embody everything that is right and good in our nation: generosity, compassion and love that is offered to support both mother and child. But rather than applauding and encouraging the selfless and life-affirming work of these centers, some governments want to force them to provide free advertising for the violent act of abortion in direct violation of their Pro-Life convictions and the First Amendment. The United States Supreme Court cannot let this happen. We pray that the Court will do the right thing and uphold our fundamental right to free speech when it decides this case.”

A number of organizations have briefs with the court in favor of these centers, including the USCCB, the California Catholic Conference, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Christian Legal Society and Agudath Israel of America. They remind the court that the First Amendment affirms our God-given right to free speech and part of that freedom is the freedom to not have to say things one does not want to say (such as telling someone where they can get an abortion).

Back on March 12 two bishops wrote to Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) to voice their support for the First Amendment Defense Act, a bill which Lee had authored. Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, chairman of USCCB Committee for Religious Liberty, and Bishop James D. Conley of Lincoln, chairman of the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, wrote, “FADA is a modest and important measure that protects the rights of faith-based organizations and people of all faiths and of no faith who believe that Marriage is the union of one man and one woman. For example, in a pluralistic society, faith-based charitable agencies, and schools should not be excluded from participation in public life by loss of licenses, accreditation, or tax-exempt status because they hold reasonable views on Marriage that differ from the federal government’s view.”

Some (including many Catholics) might object that these views about Marriage (the view that the Church has held since Pentecost) are rooted in bigotry. Although it is true that gay and lesbian people (as Father Landry wrote a while back, we will use the terminology that they have requested we use, instead of the circumlocutions we use in the Church to not define people by their sexual desires) have been (and continue to be, in many times and places) the objects of hatred and violence, one cannot say that everyone who holds the traditional belief about Marriage is doing so out of animus against gay people. 

Whatever the origin of someone’s beliefs, the two bishops, in supporting FADA, wrote, “The Church will also continue to stand for the ability of all to exercise their religious beliefs and moral convictions in public life without fear of government discrimination.”

Government discrimination is different from cultural pressure. As you can read in the Pro-Life essays from our students in this issue of The Anchor, subtle (or not so subtle) cultural pressure to conform to the popular (or elite) position on a given issue can often be very strong. We are about to enter into Holy Week, in which we meditate upon how fickle crowds and governmental leaders can be in their administration of “justice,” how they (really we) don’t want to find out what truth is (notice how Pontius Pilate didn’t wait to hear Jesus give an answer to his question, “What is truth?”). 

New York Times columnist David Brooks, in a March 1 essay entitled “How Progressives win the culture war,” warns against using this societal pressure too forcefully. “The only thing I’d say to my progressive friends is, be careful how you win your victories. It is one thing to win by persuasion and another thing to win by elite cultural intimidation. Illiberalism breeds illiberalism. Using elite power, whether economic or cultural, to silence less educated foes usually produces a backlash.”

Earlier in the column Brooks had noted how his more restrained approach of trying to convince people, instead of intimidate them, had been rejected. “Progressives are getting better and more aggressive at silencing dissenting behavior. All sorts of formerly legitimate opinions have now been deemed beyond the pale on elite campuses. Speakers have been disinvited and careers destroyed. The boundaries are being redrawn across society.”

This is why the bishops are concerned and are asking for our help in promoting freedom of speech — not so as to support hatred or oppression, but because this freedom is rooted in our human dignity. 

Brooks cited Andrew Sullivan, a gay activist (but also a free-market conservative), who wrote in New York magazine on February 9, an article entitled “We all live on campus now.” In it, Sullivan said, “The Enlightenment principles that formed the bedrock of the American experiment — untrammeled free speech, due process, individual (rather than group) rights — are now routinely understood as mere masks for ‘white male’ power, code words for the oppression of women and nonwhites.” 

Due to this “understanding” of the world, we now have a lot of “silence,” but not the good kind. Sullivan explained, “An entirely intended byproduct of this kind of [societal] bullying is silence. If voicing an ‘incorrect’ opinion can end your career, or mark you for instant social ostracism, you tend to keep quiet. This silence on any controversial social issue is endemic on college campuses, but it’s now everywhere.”

Indirectly getting back to Pontius Pilate, Sullivan wrote, “Objective truth? Ha! The culture is now saturated with the concept of ‘your own truth’ — based usually on your experience of race and gender.”

Brooks issued a scary warning at the end of his column, which sounds a lot like what Angela Lansbury’s villain said in “The Manchurian Candidate.” Brooks: “Conservatives have zero cultural power, but they have immense political power. Even today, voters trust Republicans on the gun issue more than Democrats. If you exile 40 percent of the country from respectable society they will mount a political backlash that will make Donald Trump look like Adlai Stevenson.”

Lansbury’s character planned a televised assassination, so that her husband could be “rallying a nation of television-viewers into hysteria, to sweep us up into the White House with powers that will make martial law seem like anarchy.”

Maybe we need to keep our freedom of speech.

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