Benjamin Bull

Efforts are currently underway in Spain to criminally prosecute Catholic Bishop Juan Antonio Reig Plà of the diocese of Alcalá de Henares. It seems he had the audacity to deliver a homily from the Bible during a Good Friday mass extolling the virtues of the sinless life.

And as bad as this was—reading aloud from the Bible on Good Friday and all—everything he did was acceptable until he included “homosexual behavior” as one of the sins to be avoided. This brought out the ever-predictable torches-in-hand witch-hunters promoting, above all else, the notion that any and all of criticism of homosexual behavior must be harshly stamped out, and those uttering such blasphemies must be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

Appealing to the force of law to ban politically incorrect ideas and censor the words that shape them is, of course, nothing new. We need glance no further than to our old friend George Orwell’s prophetic look into the future, 1984. Recall that Big Brother sought to control not only all thoughts but all language used to form thoughts, and the totalitarian regime Orwell described made any alternative thinking a “thought crime"—or, in the vernacular of the book, a “crime think.”

Orwell’s point was that if something can’t be said—because the words have been criminalized, banned, or no longer exist—then it is far more difficult to think it.

In considering “hate speech” laws and the plight of Plà, many lessons from Orwell can be applied. We know, of course, that law itself represents society’s standard of conduct, defining acceptable from unacceptable behavior. And the end goal of any law is the elimination of certain specified criminal behaviors. With that stated, what can we make of a law that bans the mere utterance of certain words? Indeed, what are we to make of a law when its real objective is to ban certain “dangerous ideas”?

The growing popularity and use of “hate speech” laws—which ban the expression of certain words—is much like the creation of a new and “improved” language, where the dictionary continuously shrinks rather than grows.

For those comfortable with a shrinking rather than a growing dictionary, the ever-expanding use of “hate speech” laws is no cause for alarm. But let’s pose a few questions. Having opened the Pandora’s Box of such laws, and in light of the endless supply of unwanted, stupid, and obnoxious ideas and speech, why not expand these laws to eliminate any speech the government deems bad?

Seriously—having already legitimized the banning of certain “dangerous” or “hurtful” words, where do we as a society stop?

Orwell once famously said, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” In other words, he and others believed that, without the freedom to offend, free speech and free thoughts cannot exist.

Ideas are indeed sometimes dangerous things, especially ideas that seek to challenge or even change the current status quo or existing orthodoxy. And is there really any point in having certain protections for freedom of speech if there is only freedom to express the most popular or politically correct ideas and opinions?

To be sure, the freedom to offend can propagate stupid and irrational ideas. But such freedom is also the chief means available to fight against tyranny, or fascism, or communism, or to overturn foolish but widely accepted dogma.

Think about it this way: does freedom to speak have any real value when it only protects the expression of popular or politically correct views? This was the world of Joseph Stalin; it was the world of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il, and is today the reality in several fundamentalist Muslim nations, where the expression of certain politically incorrect ideas can get you killed.

The punishing of speech and the expression of certain offensive ideas is a classic slippery slope. It starts so disarmingly with baby-steps, then gradually gains speed, and in time, gives birth to a society where free speech is no longer free, and people whisper words they believe are true for fear of punishment or retaliation.

We are reminded of these things as we see the efforts against Bishop Plà unfolding in Spain. The attempt to bring criminal “hate speech” charges against a sitting Catholic bishop for doing nothing more than preaching orthodox Christian doctrine illustrates that we may be closer to Orwell’s 1984 than most realized. And we may be further down the proverbial slippery slope than we thought.


Benjamin Bull

Benjamin Bull is an attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom.