Editor’s Note: This article was published on the op-ed pages of The Stamford Advocate and The Greenwich Time newspapers on 11/7/97. It was written in response to an editorial (click here for the full text) that had appeared a few days earlier in both papers,  questioning the right of artists to offend anyone’s religious sensibilities. I find it disturbing that a  journalist would advocate censorship; however, these are conservative times, and even those whom you’d think would defend the First Amendment often advocate ideas more appropriate to Iran than America. (A couple of readers seemed to think this article was somehow about defending NEA funding of artists. It’s not — as a libertarian, I’m actually opposed to spending taxpayer dollar to underwrite the arts.)

Sacrilegious Expression Is a Protected Right

In a recent Advocate editorial, managing editor Joseph Pisani discussed the destruction of a controversial Andres Serrano photograph by a hammer-wielding protester. After trying to equate the production of profane artwork with vandalism, Mr. Pisani asked, “Which crime was worse?” Since the only actual “crime” committed was vandalism, I found his answer — “perhaps the real crime against humanity was the photograph” — to be disturbing, especially coming from a journalist.

Destroying private property is a crime, but photography is not. Submerging a crucifix in urine shows extremely bad taste, and it’s not surprising that Christians consider Serrano’s photograph to be blasphemous. But blasphemy is a crime in a theocracy, such as Iran. In our democratic system, the expression of obnoxious or even sacrilegious ideas is protected by the Bill of Rights.

Mr. Pisani suggests we reconsider the “absolutism” that confers the “so-called right to debase another person’s beliefs.” Wasn’t this pretty much exactly the Ayatollah Khomeini’s justification for sentencing Salman Rushdie to death for blaspheming Islam in his book, The Satanic Verses?

Serrano’s “Piss Christ” was seen by almost no one, until politicians targeting the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) made it the symbol of obscene art the taxpayers were being forced to subsidize. These anti-NEA crusaders forced millions who would never have seen the picture to be offended by it.

On its own merits, the photograph has a rather haunting beauty, notwithstanding the circumstances of its creation. Unfortunately, the politicians delighted in describing its composition in lurid detail, offending more people than Serrano ever could have. However, to their credit, the lawmakers were advocating defunding the NEA, not censoring art, as Mr. Pisani has proposed.

What upsets censorship advocates most is not the pain caused by profane art, but the fact that it exists at all. The anti-censorship argument — “if you don’t like it, don’t look” — will not satisfy such people. The protesters who gathered for Serrano’s exhibit had the option of avoiding it simply by staying home. At the same time, lawful protests are everyone’s right, and the demonstrators were right to express themselves outside the gallery if that’s how they felt about it. However, despising something does not confer on anyone the right to use criminal means to eliminate it.

Offensive ideas are all around us. Yet, when was the last time anyone was hospitalized for exposure to blasphemy or injured sensibilities, or an obituary listed a fatal reaction to obnoxious ideas as the cause of death? Do we really want to legislate a slippery slope on which irreverence or bad taste is designated a crime?

Who would be the arbiters of taste, and which inquisitors in our multicultural society would identify the blasphemies? If you channel surf on Sunday mornings, you’ll hear televangelists doing unto others exactly what Mr. Pisani refers to as “a crime.” Christian fundamentalists regularly “debase” the “personal beliefs” of Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, while claiming that their religion alone is the exclusive path to salvation.

Which is more hurtful: dishonoring a religious symbol, as Serrano did, or attacking the very core of an entire religion’s beliefs, as the T.V preachers so often do? Aren’t the beliefs of Jews “debased” when they’re told the religion they devoutly practice is leading them to damnation, and their prayers can never reach God because they’re not born-again Christians?

What courts of religious orthodoxy will determine whose freedoms should be muzzled? Many televangelists sincerely believe themselves compelled to denounce the practices of “false religions,” even if this abuses their followers’ most-deeply held beliefs. Such sermonizing may be hateful, bigoted and narrow-minded, but banning it would be as unconstitutional as outlawing Islamic fundamentalists who label all Christians as infidels.

One reason we protect free expression is that we have no way of knowing who will be abridging whose rights as the winds of changes shift. Islam is now America’s fastest-growing religion. Imagine a future Muslim majority outlawing the New Testament or criminalizing Christmas carols as offensive to Islam? Ask the soldiers who served in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War whether this is a realistic fear.

Most people will say that “that could never happen here,” but what’s shocking is how many people would like to see it happen here. Iranian book critics wielding death sentences, the righteous art critics swinging hammers and censorship-advocating newspaper editors are cut from the same cloth — defining as criminal those things they find personally offensive or theologically profane.

Equating morally debatable, but legal activities with actual crimes weakens the rule of law, making it easier to justify crimes committed against those activities. The reductio ad absurdem of attacking a photograph with a hammer is shooting an abortion doctor. Like the creator of Piss Christ, abortionists are often referred to as criminals. How many pro-life spokespersons, while denouncing violence against abortionists, leaven their disapproval with the inevitable “but ...” as if the killer godly hatred of abortion created an equation between the two “crimes” that mitigated murder.

Although I find Mr. Pisani’s editorial philosophy narrow-minded and offensive, I would never want to see his opinions censored, any more than I would want to see irreverent artwork outlawed. As a believer in the right of free expression, I don’t view it is a “crime against humanity” for him to “debase” my personal belief in the First Amendment. It only becomes a “crime” when fanatics take the law (and the hammers) into their own hands to eliminate these freedoms.

Click here to read a related article on the First Amendment.

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