Baltimore Hebrew University Professor Supporting Legal Penalties for "Negative Depiction of Religion":

From a May 12, 2006 column by Dr. Robert O. Freedman, columnist for the Baltimore Jewish Times, professor of political science at Baltimore Hebrew University, former acting president of the university, and former visiting professor at Princeton (emphasis added):

As the crisis over the Danish cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad appears to be dying down, it is time to create a system to prevent such a costly crisis from erupting in the future.

As a result of the crisis, lives were lost, embassies were attacked in the Muslim world, the loyalty of Muslims living in Europe was put into question, and the image of Islam in the West as a violent religion was reinforced, thus increasing the possibility of the "clash of civilizations" desired by Islamic radicals such as Osama bin Laden....

In order to rectify the situation, and to prevent a future crisis of this type from erupting, what is needed is a "code of conduct" for the newspapers and other media in both the Western and Muslim worlds. All governments must agree that the negative depiction of religion is "out of bounds," and penalties should be imposed on those who violate the code of conduct.

The problem, of course, is to determine the difference between legitimate criticism of someone who acts in the name of a religion, and the negative depiction of that religion.

To solve that problem, I propose the creation of an International Religious Court, composed of Christian, Muslim and Jewish clergymen with one clergyman representing each of the three religions. Anyone feeling that his or her religion was insulted could appeal to the International Religious Court for a ruling on the matter, and the court would then determine whether a penalty should be invoked. It would be the responsibility of the government on whose territory the action took place to impose the penalty....

[G]overnments may be reluctant, on grounds of sovereignty, to impose penalties required by such an international court. Nonetheless, there is a precedent wherein a number of states have, in certain cases, voluntarily agreed to abide by the decisions of the International Court of Justice, which could be a model for the International Religious Court....

As you might gather, my reaction to this is much the same as my reaction to the "Defamation of Religions" argument I criticized below. Interestingly, unlike Prof. Ali Khan's work, Dr. Friedman's argument doesn't even mention the possibility that the nation in which he lives might be constitutionally barred from going along with the orders of any such court.

Thanks to David Gerstman (Soccer Dad) for the pointer.

Michael Simpson (mail) (www):
Love the passive voice there - "lives were lost...embassies were attacked..." It's almost as if it was some sort of natural phenomena, unstoppable except by regulation and law. And I'm sure all those Hindus, Buddhists, and members of the thousands of other religious groups (not to mention the non-believers) will be greatly relieved to hear that (some) Jews, (some) Christians, and (some) Muslims will be getting together to set the policy for everyone else. Sheesh.
2.7.2007 3:11pm
ed o:
lives were lost-it's a way of tiptoeing around the fact that a very significant portion of the particular religion that shall not be named consists of individuals who, charitably, could be called savages if that did not defame savages. it's probably easier to sleep at night to just say it the way the good professor and a lot of media say it.
2.7.2007 3:37pm

All governments must agree that the negative depiction of religion is "out of bounds"

I wonder if he thinks that the observation that many Muslims acted violently in the name of Islam by rioting, burning embassies, etc. would be a "negative depiction of religion".
2.7.2007 4:01pm
Would the complete banning by the Saudi government of the practice of religions other than Islam, "rightly understood," run afoul of this movement?
2.7.2007 4:05pm
Would this also apply to Dawkins and others of his belief???????????????? Why don't we just require people to wear government mandated duct tape over their mouths that can only be removed to speak when the internaational law freaks say it is O:K?????????????? I feel like I live in the twilight zone and something bad is about to happen.
2.7.2007 4:15pm
VFBVFB (mail):
--- To solve that problem, I propose the creation of an International Religious Court, composed of Christian, Muslim and Jewish clergymen with one clergyman representing each of the three religions. ---

There are over a billion Christians, and over a billion Muslims, but less than 20 million Jews. He does not address why a panel made up of one clergyman representing each of the three religions is fair. Of course, if there are judicial panels that have proportional representation, a guy named Freedman would be screwed if there were ever charges against him that he engaged in negative depiction of religion.

On another note, he seems educated enough that he must know that there are people who believe in religions other than the three he mentioned. If I were a member of one of them, I might be offended by the fact that he does not deem members of other religions worthy of participating in this Court. If there ever were an International Religious Court, I think that someone could file a complaint against him, for attempting to disenfranchise people based on religious belief.
2.7.2007 4:20pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
When I can deliver Bibles and openly promote Christianity in Saudi Arabia, let me know, and maybe this will have some potential. When the Human Rights Council issues great, massive condemnations of Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries for prohibiting the free exercise of non-Islamic religions, let me know, and maybe I'll have some faith in the international processes. Until then, I consider this to be a proposal by a bunch of "free speech for me, but not for thee" types.

Plus, of course, the practical problems mentioned by VFBVFB. Will the representative of Islam be a Sunni or a Shi'ite? How about a Sufi? Will Christianity be represented by the Pope? The Queen of England? One of the Patriarchs? Billy Graham? (How about Jerry Falwell!)

Arghhhh!!!!! This kind of utter nonsense wastes so much time and energy which could be so much more productively employed, doing things which might actually help make the world a better place.
2.7.2007 4:47pm
Nathan Jones (mail):
--- To solve that problem, I propose the creation of an International Religious Court, composed of Christian, Muslim and Jewish clergymen with one clergyman representing each of the three religions. ---

Would Shia Muslims accept the judgment of a Sunni on this panel? Would Orthodox Jews accept a Reform Rabbi? Would Evangelicals accept an Episcopalian? Would Orthodox accept a Catholic? (and vice-versa)

Talk about half-baked ideas...
2.7.2007 5:02pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
All governments must agree that the negative depiction of religion is "out of bounds"

Wouldn't it be better if all governments (and religions) agreed that violence in response to the negative depiction of religion is "out of bounds"?
2.7.2007 5:03pm
PLEASE tell me the original posting was satire. It's too absurd to even engage with. (And people wonder why so many of us have doubts about international law!)
2.7.2007 5:16pm
Shelby (mail):
Frequent reminders of why we don't let professors of political science determine political matters are, in my opinion, a Good Thing. (Is there any other field where the academic specialists have less practical effect?)
2.7.2007 5:24pm
great unknown (mail):
By the way, would the denigration of say, Reform Judaism by a Conservative Rabbi be illegal. Or will the somewhat perjorative term "ultra-Orthodox" be rewarded with a prison sentence?
2.7.2007 5:29pm
Upon reading this post, I've come to the conclusion that either:
A. Baltimore Hebrew University is a "fake" school or diploma mill; AND/OR
B. Dr. Friedman was high when he wrote the column.

Any other conclusion just makes my brain hurt.
2.7.2007 5:38pm
. . .International Religious Court, composed of Christian, Muslim and Jewish clergymen . . .

So a priest, an imam, and a rabbi walk into a bar and say, "This joke is out of bounds! You must be penalized!"
2.7.2007 5:42pm
Elliot123 (mail):
This is satire. It's a joke.
2.7.2007 5:42pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
To solve that problem, I propose the creation of an International Religious Court, composed of Christian, Muslim and Jewish clergymen with one clergyman representing each of the three religions.

There are over a billion Christians, and over a billion Muslims, but less than 20 million Jews. He does not address why a panel made up of one clergyman representing each of the three religions is fair.

It sort of reminds me of something I saw on the Simpsons:

Flanders: Homer, God didn't set your house on fire.
Rev. Lovejoy: No, but He was working in the hearts of your friends and neighbors when they came to your aid, be they Christian [camera pans to Flanders], Jew [Krusty], or...miscellaneous [Apu].
Apu: Hindu! There are 700 million of us.
Lovejoy: Aw, that's super.
-The Simpsons, "Homer the Heretic"

Does anyone else think it's odd that an International Religious Court made up of only three clergymen should exclude representation from Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs -- the world's third, fourth, and fifth largest religions?

Yes I realize that most of us (and judging by the all of the sites on google which reference "International Religious Court" it's about a unanimous opinion) saw this as a foolish idea. But how on Earth does someone this utterly lacking in reason, with so little respect for freedom of speech, and utterly oblivious to the beliefs of billions of people who think differently than he does get a job teaching, much less serving as the "acting president" of a university?

Yes I know the question suggests its own answer.
2.7.2007 5:45pm
M. Gross (mail):
How precisely would one discuss religion?

Most belief systems are mutually exclusive to other belief systems.
2.7.2007 5:50pm
Michael B (mail):
Why is the negative depiction of religion any worse than the negative depiction of any other world view, whether religious, areligious or anti-religious?

And the following from a prior thread on the same subject:

"A new value is emerging in the realm of the peoples' rights ..."

Funny how methodical, ideologically inspired decapitations can inspire "new values."

The social/political arena can be a bit brute-like at times, but the free market place of ideas is a better idea than regimentation via ad hoc legal proscriptions determined by three wise men, whether they be religious or otherwise.

Respect of other peoples' beliefs, within reasonable bounds, is certainly a healthy idea, but it can generally be advanced via suasion rather than over-reaching legal coercions.
2.7.2007 5:59pm
this is soft bigotry all over again.

if religious beliefs are somehow irreperably harmed because somebody insults them, then they are not worth holding in the first place. it totally diminishes the dignity of any religious believer, telling them they need protection from people who will say bad things about their beliefs.

i wonder if martin luther would have been prosecuted under this proposed law?

2.7.2007 6:16pm
Wow, this guy is a complete idiot. BTW, for people asking for an example of criticizing jews and it not being anti-semetic - this is your lucky day! Go to it - he's what we call a "schlub"
2.7.2007 8:56pm
Daryl Herbert (www):
Defining the Terms:

What is to be considered a "religion" and what sorts of creeds are not religious (and thus fair game)?

For instance, the Jewish race and Judaism are closely tied together, but Palestinians belong to a few faiths. Does this mean defaming Israel would run afoul of the rule, but not defaming Palestine? Or would they create a massive loophole allowing any criticism of Israel, even if it appears on its face to be anti-Semitic?

Are there any religions that could be criticized? Many formerly-dead religions have new followers today (i.e., Norse and Greek mythology) and new religions have sprung up (Wicca, Scientology). What about Satanism? I suspect they will be the first plaintiffs! Religious people should be careful about the laws they bring about for their own benefit. Many Satanists stridently claim that they're not "evil," just selfish and misunderstood/demonized.

Is atheism a "religion" under this doctrine? Or are atheists not entitled to any protection at all? They can say whatever they want about us, but we have to keep our mouths shut?

Does the "Flying Spaghetti Monster" defame any particular religion? All of them? None at all? People say it's used to prove one very narrow point (it's impossible to disprove the existence of God, but it's also impossible to disprove the existence of the FSM, so fucking what?) but let's face reality: 99% of the atheists who trot out images of the FSM do so to mock Christianity (your religion is no better than my FSM, so there, godbag). Any philosophical argument that is not sufficiently respectful of all religions could fall prey to this.

What is to be considered defamation? In the American system, the statement must be false and insulting. But the British allow for defamation claims to succeed in some instances even if the claim is found to be true. Should we allow defamation claims to succeed even if the original statements can be shown to be true, if they are nonetheless very insulting?

For instance, if someone made a web site where the only thing they listed were police reports of black men accused of raping white women, I think most of us would agree that the web site is racist, even though it's 100% factual. That might be considered defamatory of blacks.

Would a web site listing Islamic suicide bombings (and only Islamic suicide bombings) be defamatory of Muslims? What about a web site listing nothing but alleged Israeli army violations? Is Little Green Footballs a hate website (idiot left-wing freedom-haters say: "yes!")

What about a web site with facts about the blood libel (that Jews killed Christians to get blood to make matzoh for Passover)? It would be possible to cherry pick facts to create the impression that the blood libel is true. For instance, one could report that modern-day Imam Z said that allegations of child-kiling for Matzoh were made long ago in Year X by Mr. Y, but not report that there never were any allegations at that time, or that the allegations were proven false. Technically you've told the truth (that Imam Z said something in one of his sermons) but surely creating the impression in the listener that the blood libel is true would be defamatory of Judaism.

What about straight-out documentary footage? Alexandra Pelosi's movie, "Jesus Camp," and Borat all feature footage of religious people engaged in worship and explaining their beliefs. Are those movies "defamatory"?

Has a British TV channel defamed Islam by pointing out that a Muslim school in Britain is using Saudi textbooks that say Jews are apes and pigs? and that all religions other than Islam are inferior? Or has the Saudi Kingdom defamed every other religion by claiming they are all inferior? Is that "defamation," or would the Saudis have the affirmative defense that all other religions are in fact inferior? Or would there be an exception to the "defamation" rule for triumphalist chest-beating? Lots of religions claims to be #1, the only Truth, etc. It's not so different from saying "Islam is best." And, if you believe that people from all other religions will burn in hellfire for all eternity, then all religions other than Islam are inferior--at getting you into Heaven! If it's true and straightforward (not misleading), how can it be defamatory?

And if the court decides to give weight to truth vs. falsehood in its determinations, does that mean this modern inquisition will have to decide what's true about religion? These judges will decide whether I've defamed Islam by misquoting the prophet, or misinterpreting a verse from the Koran? The U.N. gets to decide who's a true Episcopalian (who can be a plaintiff) and what Episcopalians' true beliefs are (to decide whether their characterization is defamatory)?

If truth doesn't matter, then are we really talking about insults to religion rather than defamation? Are we actually worrying about religious peoples' wounded pride? Isn't that the problem with the Mohammed cartoons: not that they're "defamatory," but that they're disrespectful? Are we going to have world government telling us which opinions and creeds and value systems we must respect?

Do I have to respect creationism? Is it "defamatory" to raise inconvenient objections re: carbon dating?


Intrafaith Issues:

What if I said Islam allowed Muslims to take infidel women as sex slaves after a battle, or that middle-aged Mohammad married a 9-year-old girl (and consummated the marriage), or that many Muslims believe they must kill every Jew on earth before the end times can come about? If I said those things, I would probably run afoul of this law. But if a Muslim preacher says them (and Muslims have said all of these things, thought not all Muslims believe them), would he be immune?

There are three possible results, each equally absurd: one is that a Jew could be arrested for repeating a sermon given by a Muslim. Two is that a Muslim could be arrested for giving a sermon that is offensive to some other Muslim (it would have to be a Muslim tattletale as per Professor Freedman's formula). Three is that a defendant charged with insulting Islam could point out that some Muslim, somewhere, said the same thing—and then the court would have to decide whether the source was a bona fide Muslim (and if you're quoting a Sunni preacher's insults against a Shi'ite, that shouldn't be a valid defense). Insane.

Should a more strict Christian be able to complain about a casual Christian (or vice versa) if one ridicules the other? If a pro-choice Catholic claims the basis for the Church's anti-choice position is misogyny (hatred of women, fear of female sexuality, patriarchal desire for male dominance, etc.) is that defamation?


"I'm the Decider"—President George W. Bush

Who is to interpret the no defamation rule and make the decisions? Who is going to answer all of the questions I raised above?

That person or persons would have tremendous power. Given the ill-defined boundaries of this law, it would be easy to press it into service selectively to achieve some end other than discouraging defamation of religion (such as: discouraging critical comments about the Palestinian leadership)


In short, this is a terrible idea. Dr. Freedman's proposal is no worse than any other, because all proposals in this area are pretty much equally bad. There's no good way to do this.

I will commend Mr. Freedman for reminding everyone of the importance of gun rights. The more "civilized" the world gets, the more obvious it is that we need lots and lots of guns in the hands of our civilian populace.
2.7.2007 9:51pm
Where does that leave the Atheists?
I don't know if any reliable numbers exist, but I'd guess there are a billion of them. Since atheism is not a religion, it must be ok to negatively depict them.
Alternatively atheism needs to be declared a religion or the proposal needs to include non-religions, that is, everybody.
2.7.2007 11:33pm
Q the Enchanter (mail) (www):
That's not satire? Astonishing.
2.7.2007 11:59pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
The commenters who suggested it might be satire had me just a bit worried. No-one wants to be the dope who gets duped. I reread it, and was pretty sure it was serious, but I actually decided to check it out by e-mailing the author. The author confirms that it's serious, and stands by it (unless his joke continues, and is even deeper than I can imagine).
2.8.2007 12:33am
M. Simon (mail) (www):
I'm sure the Scientologists are going to want in on this and will be miffed they were not invited.
2.8.2007 12:33am
M. Simon (mail) (www):

I think putz is more like it.

Or maybe momzer.

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Swear in Yiddish, just like a Jew.
2.8.2007 12:49am
Michael B (mail):
As already stated, I disagree with him, but given the environment - the post-Danish cartoon era, etc. - I don't see why the guy or the idea needs to be disrespected. It might reflect satire in a pre-9/11 era, yes, but it's not as if the present realities foreclose such considerations tout court.
2.8.2007 1:23am
Daryl Herbert (www):
At first glance, I thought it was for real. The Abrahamic Monopoly Triumvirate seemed dumb (why cut out Hindus in favor of Jews, how are we going to get all Muslims to agree on 1 rep, all Christians to agree on 1 rep, etc.) but I ignored it.

Immediately after I put up my essay, I felt poster's remorse. I, too, felt like a dupe. Of course the whole proposal was a joke; the absurd Jew-Christian-Muslim council was the tip-off. But I guess not.

Also: sorry about the F-word in there. I revised my essay a couple times but I must have missed it.
2.8.2007 2:34am
Just a Nut (mail):
Since when did all of the Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs not to mention animists die off. Each of these groups are far more numerous than the Jews (unless one includes the wannabe Jews-- the Christians and Muslims). This is the goofiest thing I have come accross.

There should be, instead, a panel to provide damages in response to violence based on percieved religion based insults to be assessed against those who react in a hystierical manner or incite or support such hysterical responses.
2.8.2007 4:27am
Gary McGath (www):
A Jew calling for a Holy Inquisition. The mind boggles. Has this professor ever read any Jewish history?
2.8.2007 10:03am

I've had a class on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with Dr. Freedman, and it was one of the best political science classes I've taken. He's very smart and a very engaging lecturer, and his coverage of the issues was very balanced.

That's why I'm confused about this. Terrible idea. Think it over again, Prof.
2.8.2007 11:24am
What a jackass.
2.8.2007 12:21pm