Monday, May 19, 2014

Even a broken clock

It comes as no surprise to anyone that I'm a Democrat.  I could go on and on about the reasons why, but it might surprise you to learn that if you asked me what my political philosophy is, I would say that I'm a civil libertarian.  (In fact, I'm a Democrat because I'm a civil libertarian.)

Essentially what that means to me is that I prefer that the laws be implemented in such a way as to provide and protect maximal individual freedom to Americans, but it also means that I want the government to act in ways that support individual liberty by providing help to individuals who need it.

As the old song goes, "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose."  But it doesn't have to be that way.  To make freedom meaningful for people, we need to do more to make it possible for them to experience that freedom. 

Anyway, I'm a big fan of the American Civil Liberties Union.  The ACLU is unfairly maligned in many circles.  Some people have objections to the kinds of people they help--such as when the ACLU supported the rights of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, in the 1970s.  Others view the ACLU as meddlers bent on upsetting conservative institutions.  I can't say I agree with every position the ACLU has ever taken, but they extend their help all comers, even including groups and individuals who advocate positions that are antithetical to the liberal viewpoint the ACLU supposedly champions.

Conservatives, of course, have their own version.  The American Center for Law and Justice--the "ACLJ"--aims to champion conservatives' liberties in the opposite of the manner most conservatives pretend the ACLU champions liberal views.  Needless to say, most of the ACLJ's initiatives are slavishly devoted to partisan ideology, rather than to any particular ideals about freedom (or law and justice, for that matter), and to selective outrage.

As they say, though, even a broken clock is right twice a day.  And the ACLJ is sort of right about this one.

The ACLJ has a petition up, seeking signatures to put pressure on the Air Force to "stop censoring the religious free speech of military cadets." 

I found that to be a bit odd, so I looked into it a bit further.  Much like any college campus, the Air Force Academy has dormitories, and the outside of each cadet's dorm room has a white board that can be used both for official communication and for personal communication.  I recall having something similar on my dorm room door.

A junior-year cadet used his white board to post a Bible verse, Galatians 2:20:  "I have been crucified with Christ therefore I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me."

After complaints were registered, the Academy required that the verse be taken off the board, and the cadet complied. 

I don't disagree that the verse is offensive by implication.  It is one thing for a cadet to put up the verse in a private area as a reminder of his religious convictions, to provide him with some sort of motivation, or whatever.  Putting it up in a public area suggests that the verse is being used to proselytize others to his faith or, perhaps, as a signal to others who do not share his beliefs that they are disfavored.  Because that cadet is in a position of authority, the danger of that sort of thing is heightened.

There are a few things at work here, and probably the most important one is that the Air Force can and does restrict the speech of its members, and it is certainly Constitutional for it to do so, at least when it is necessary to further unit cohesion and effectiveness.  But what we have here is a situation in which the AFA has provided a forum that it admits is, at least in part, for the personal use of students.

Once the government provides a forum for speech, it cannot then censor that speech without infringing upon the rights of the speaker.  It was therefore wrong for the AFA to require the cadet to take down his Bible verse because it was deemed offensive.

But the ACLJ (along with the right-wing noise machine that follows it) is only partially right.  The AFA most definitely can restrict this kind of speech by confining the use of white boards to official communications only.  If the cadets are using the forum in a way that runs contrary to the effective discipline of the service, the AFA should take away the forum for that reason--which means that all "personal" communications in this place should be forbidden.

The AFA would therefore need to consider whether the convenience or morale boost that having a forum for personal speech provides is worth also opening that forum to communications that are offensive to other cadets, and make its decision.  But the content of the communications cannot be the dividing line.

If I were in charge, I would probably allow the verse to remain, with the proviso that cadets who believe they are the victims, however subtle, of religious discrimination by their superiors are given reasonable opportunities to complain about mistreatment without suffering consequences for doing so--and cadets who choose to use their forums for religious speech might reasonably be disciplined for that mistreatment.  That is the only way I see to uphold individual religious freedom while providing effect to the anti-discrimination provisions of AFI 1-1.  I admit that it's a fine line to walk, but it's worth walking.  Religious freedom, even for military cadets, is important.

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