Thursday, August 5, 2010

Change or Get Out: Free Speech on Trial

Enjoy sharing your ideas while you can. Freedom of speech is becoming an endangered species. reports that,

• “A graduate student [Jennifer Keeton] in Georgia is suing her university after she was told she must undergo a remediation program due to her beliefs on homosexuality and transgendered persons…Keeton's lawsuit alleges that the university's remediation plan noted Keeton's ‘disagreement in several [counseling] class discussions and in written assignments with the gay and lesbian lifestyle,' as well as Keeton's belief that those ‘lifestyles’ are cases of identity confusion…Her lawyer informed Fox News that, ‘The university has told Jennifer Keeton that if she doesn't change her beliefs, she can't stay in the [counseling] program.’”

Submitting to “a remediation program” is not enough for the university. Keeton must actually change her beliefs! Why insist upon a uniformity of belief? Doesn’t even the term “university” connote that diversity of viewpoints is a strength and not a problem? If sexual diversity is to be enthroned without challenge, shouldn’t it include all sexual lifestyles? Shouldn’t adultery, incest, and polygamy also be included in this medley? Why not? Don’t these matters need to be discussed? Or should the politically correct view and the threats of being labeled “homophobe” silence all other views?

Usually, such free speech restrictions are imposed to not offend others. That’s generally the rationale. However, this rationale is highly hypocritical. While institutions are becoming trigger-happy in their use of threats so as not to offend, Keeton’s university shows little restraint about not offending Keeton or the many others who will now be intimidated and silenced by these rulings. While the university demands tolerance, it is intolerant of those who believe otherwise.

OK, this is a secular nation. However, there are two types of secularism. There is the benign form which our Founding Fathers wisely established for the benefit of our many dissenting factions. They understood that peaceful co-existence depended upon everyone having equal access to the democratic process. This form of secularism guaranteed our freedoms of speech and religion. The second form is recent, virulent and highly repressive. It is replacing our 1st amendment guarantees of freedom of religion and speech with the secular “State” religion of political correctness, dictating what can be expressed and what can’t be, even in violation of sincerely held and legally protected religious convictions.

We tend to forget that our legal climate wasn’t always this way. Up until now, it has been characterized by the understanding that living together required tolerance and the respect for the conscience and free expression of others, even for those with whom we disagreed. For example, in 1940, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case involving Jehovah Witness children who refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Justice Felix Frankfurter argued for the majority that our common national interests for patriotic cohesiveness required the Pledge. In response, Justice Harlan Stone retorted that religious liberty argued for,

• “The freedom of the individual from compulsion as to what he shall think and what he shall say, at least where the compulsion is to bear false witness to his religion.”

According to Stone, our freedom of religion and expression should even take precedence over certain national interests. In contrast, now even the passing fads of political correctness have been elevated over our religious freedoms.

Thankfully, Frankfurter’s decision did not stand. In 1943, in a very similar case, Justice Robert Jackson wrote for the majority and affirmed:

• “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

Sadly, this is the very thing that Keeton’s university has resorted to. She not only has been required to submit to a remediation program, but she must also change her beliefs under threat of expulsion.

In 1965, the Court heard a case that directly impacted national security but ruled to grant qualified U.S. citizens the status of “conscientious objector.” However, this designation could only be given to “those persons who by reason of their religious training and belief are conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form.”

This was a ruling that would clearly be divisive and could actually compromise national security. However, there was still enough respect for religion and the sanctity of the conscience of the individual that the court overruled other weighty concerns. Even the liberal Justice Stephen O. Douglas concurred with the majority:

• “…any person opposed to war on the basis of a sincere belief, which in his life fills the same place as a belief in God fills in the life of the orthodox religionist, is entitled to exemption under the statute.”

This decision and a similar one five years later affirming the conscientious objector status were difficult cases. Many were concerned that by giving conscientious objectors what might look like a free ride, others might be deeply offended and bitter. Nevertheless, respect for the expression of sincerely held faith was deemed more important than the probable offense that the decision would cause.

Keeton now faces a different problem and a different kind of secularism – one that refuses to tolerate differing viewpoints. Even though there is no national security issue at stake or even the infringement of others’ lifestyles, her university is coercing her to change her beliefs. And why? Do her beliefs infringe upon the welfare of others? No! But rather, because some regard her beliefs as offensive! And so, the university has reacted offensively towards Keeton!

In defense, Keeton’s university would only declare that it is bound by its “code of ethics” which states,

• "Counselors do not discriminate against clients, students, employees, supervisees, or research participants in a manner that has a negative impact on these persons…"

However, some mental health programs have a more tolerant stance. They allow their counselors to opt out of counseling those clients whose lifestyles they find objectionable. And shouldn’t it be that way? Should the university coerce a counselor, who had been the victim of sexual abuse, to counsel a proud and practicing pedophile? Should the counselor be coerced to affirm the defiant adulterer or child-pornographer? Aren’t these legitimate concerns? Is it more professional to coerce the counselor to change her beliefs regarding these behaviors and then force her to half-heartedly counsel these individuals?

The “code” mentions “a negative impact on these persons." However, what is a negative impact? A failure to affirm the client in all he does? Perhaps the real negative impact is affirming and enabling the client to continue in a self-destructive lifestyle? Should the counselor affirm heroin addiction if that’s the counselee’s chosen lifestyle?

Interestingly, this “code” represents a statement of religion, no less than any other creed or Bible. But this “code” is coercive and punitive! If it is violated, out you go!

Shouldn’t there be a discussion about what might constitute “negative impact”? Indeed, but there is none! Conversation about alternative sexual lifestyles has increasingly been silenced by threat of reprisals.

We have battled many legal issues in this country – abolition, child labor, segregation. The battles have sometimes been contentious. Laws have been passed, and laws have been repealed. Nevertheless, the issues have been discussed openly and freely. As contentious as the struggles have sometimes been, no one’s right to express themselves is generally contested. Freedom of speech has always been the centerpiece of our democratic society. No so anymore! Expressing one’s conscience is now accompanied by threats of intimidation and even violence. Perhaps even more egregiously, the media and the universities have fallen silent before the new State religion of political correctness.

Keeton’s case is not unusual. According to

• “EMU (East Michigan University) dismissed [Julea] Ward from its graduate counseling program in March 2009 for not affirming homosexual behavior as morally acceptable. Ward would not agree to change her religious beliefs about homosexual behavior or express a message contrary to them during counseling sessions as a condition to receiving a degree.”

How did this happen? Ward did the appropriate and professional thing. When she was assigned a case, she immediately informed her supervisor of her conflict and requested the case be reassigned. Is that so terrible? It is ironic that we should find such intolerance in a helping professional, which so strenuously insists on tolerance for other lifestyles.

(See similar recent instances in which certain viewpoints are no longer tolerated:

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