The Northland shares the “nice” tradition, a reputation to be proud of. When I think of the unconscious discrimination and stereotyping present when I grew up, it’s hardly asking too much to exercise some self-restraint. On the other side, there are those who see “nice” as objectionable. To them, the habit dangerously intrudes political correctness into free speech. There’s merit there, too, because free speech is nothing to take lightly or for granted. Indeed, there are risks in being too nice or overly correct, if in so doing one becomes either doormat or an enabler. The individual must retain the right not to be nice for use as needed.

It’s funny, though, how slippery these slopes can be. There is, for example, a body of religious thought that wants religion protected from insult and defamation. The pope was partly in agreement, though the prime mover has been the Organization of Islamic Conferences working through the UN to bring member states in line regarding the latest term for religious defamation, which is now being called criminal hate speech. The U.S. has been singularly opposed to protection of an ideology at the expense of individual rights. I hope this remains so because it is a critical distinction for law to shield individual rights rather than handing those rights to a group—religious, political, or economic. Put simply, the worst I could say about a major corporation is a lot less than it could do to me if with its power and resources it could haul me in on insult charges. The same applies to political or religious groups. In fact, giving this “protection” to religion is the back door to criminal hate speech used as accusation of blasphemy.

There is a view holding that too much liberty/free speech can be harmful if it offends others. Maybe so, but I’d risk it over the alternative of protecting group belief above individual rights. Plus, the criminalizing “offense” sets a very vague standard, not to mention the doubtful argument that government functions as an offense buffer. If some claim a human right NOT to be offended, they stand firmly behind the impossible and impractical.

There’s a further reason, however, why limiting personal freedom of expression to protect group sensibilities is a bad idea, bad because it is woefully slanted in favor of the most orthodox, conservative, and fundamentalist views, where reformers or moderates who question, challenge, or take to task the hard liners can be shoved aside by the roundabout use of criminal insult to the group. It will seem far afield (even silly) to us, but some of those promoting defense of religion through criminal hate speech laws have in their legal codes provision to jail a dissident as “a friend of the enemies of God.” How can constructive discussion take place when one side holds in its grip so much power over the individual? When we fall into the trap of being too nice and limiting freedom of expression, we not only limit our freedom but we cut the legs from under moderates and reformers in other places because hardliners can then say, “This is the standard even they support.” Dampening our freedom of expression spreads to an overall blanket limiting discussion to approved orthodoxy. Before we are to accept such a notion, we’d best ask if doing so would have prevented the Protestant Reformation or would have legalized the Inquisition. Protecting belief over individual rights is so far outside our traditions I doubt there’s any way to accommodate it without savage injury to individual protections.

Some will and have argued nobly that religious matters should not be interfered with by the state and exist in a special category exempt from secular society. It’s odd, then, why they would seek political and legal protection for strictly religious matters—unless, of course, they really don’t mean points of theology at all and are looking for ways to garner political and governmental power. Quite frankly, all beliefs, religious or otherwise, carry some weight or element we could call political. Religion does not stand outside society, but in a secular society guaranteeing individual freedoms, a religion is not automatically granted the clout it might want. Let’s keep it that way. I say so because a wedding taking place in a church doesn’t therefore mean that matters between spouses are to remain under religious rule. The secular state has a legitimate role to play regarding the welfare of individuals and their sometimes conflicting rights. For example, if religious law gave one spouse full control over the spouse, should state law be obliged to support the imbalance? If religious law dictates that only one parent has rights to children in the event of separation, state law should not be bound to deprive the other parent. Religious matters affect people in many ways beyond faith. Disregarding individual rights in favor of divine beliefs is no better than doing so to favor divine nobility or by yielding rights to wealth or to force.

If one criminalizes defamation of religion, it’s the same as saying religion can therefore not be criticized. (States that define themselves by religious affiliation might find that quite handy to hide behind.) Do I take freedom too far in saying the Organization of Islamic Conferences uses a religious cloak to cover political moves and motives? They are states, after all. Having a state religion should not be a shield against hard questions. If piety means being a stupid sheep, then I’ll take my chances as a sly and offensive fox or as a wolf if need be. If believers don’t understand the dangers of sheepish stupidity, they should be damn glad there are some around to shake them out of their lethargy and cause them to think in broader religious terms, possibly even spiritual ones. I certainly won’t go quietly along while any group tries to pile religious bricks on one side of justice’s scales. Next thing you know you’d be offending religion simply expressing your own religious view. Oh wait, there are places that already believe that and will jail you for it, too.