How Tolerant Should We Be of Intolerance?

Posted on February 13, 2009 at 5:47 pm

I received warring press releases this week from both sides in the controversy over a film called Silencing Christians, each accusing the other side of intolerance and censorship. Each side believes that the other is infringing on its right to live within its beliefs.
“Silencing Christians” argues that the “homosexual agenda” interferes with their freedom of religion. It was produced by the American Family Association and scheduled to run on a Michigan television station as a paid broadcast (like an infomercial). But the Human Rights Campaign organized a protest and the station canceled the broadcast. The HRC, in requesting that the broadcast be canceled, did not ask for a one-sided portrayal of the issues but proposed that the station “air a fair discussion or debate on both the issues and pending legislation.”
Words like “propaganda” and “censorship” get tossed around in situations like this one, and they usually and understandably throw as much suspicion on the people using the terms as on those they are describing. Freedom of speech and equality are the foundation of the United States. They underlie every aspect of our politics and culture. When they clash, as they do here, we end up with both sides feeling that their rights have been trampled. The AFA wants the freedom to describe homosexuals in ways that affront the notions of equality of many people, including heterosexuals and others who are members of Christian or other faith communities. When does “speech” become “hate speech?” When is one side’s version of the truth so biased that it should not even be permitted to be said?
It is hard to make much of a case for censorship here, despite the television station’s decision (which was made not on the basis of the merits of the argument but on the equally valid basis that they did not want to be in the middle of the fight). Silencing Christians is available online. Even a few minutes’ viewing will raise some questions for anyone not already convinced. The use of terms like “agenda” should always be a red flag; for some reason everyone wants to accuse the other side of having an “agenda” but you never hear them acknowledging their own.
As a lawyer with a strong commitment to freedom of speech, my inclination is to let all sides be heard. The bigots, the ignorant, and the liars will betray their biases and hypocrisy with their own words. They get more attention by protesting “censorship” than they do promoting their views. Better to let them say what they have to say and provide a rebuttal. It only adds to the credibility of those who tell the truth to recognize that nothing anyone can say will mislead those who make their judgments based on facts, logic, and a commitment to fairness and integrity. “Silencing Christians” is itself the best proof of the spiritual and intellectual vacuum of its arguments.

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Remembering the Hays Code — Movie Censorship from 1930-1968

Posted on August 14, 2008 at 8:00 am

NPR’s Bob Mondello has an excellent essay on the Hays Code, which governed Hollywood films from 1930-1968, when it was replaced by the MPAA rating system.
A reaction to some provocative films in the days of the early talkies, the code was named for the former Postmaster Will Hays, who created it at the request of the movie studios.

Among those considerations: that no picture should ever “lower the moral standards of those who see it” and that “the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.” There was an updated, much-expanded list of “don’ts” and “be carefuls,” with bans on nudity, suggestive dancing and lustful kissing. The mocking of religion and the depiction of illegal drug use were prohibited, as were interracial romance, revenge plots and the showing of a crime method clearly enough that it might be imitated.

There was very little about violence in the Code but there were restrictions that seem quaint today in other areas — for example, it prohibited portrayals of clergy that made them appear corrupt or foolish. There are legendary stories of battles over whether Rhett Butler would be allowed to say “I don’t give a damn” in “Gone With the Wind” (he was) or whether Bette Davis could get away with murder in “The Letter” (she wasn’t). And writer-directors like Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges prided themselves on getting past the censors with subtle double entendres.
The Code was abandoned 40 years ago in favor of the ratings system. While it is very far from perfect, it does have the advantage of making it possible for movies to cover a wider range of subjects and characters.

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