Pope Francis Supports Free Speech, Unless It Offends People

"You cannot provoke," the pope says, endorsing the terrorist's veto.


Today Pope Francis aligned himself with those who, after witnessing a massacre in retaliation for cartoons, say freedom of speech should be protected as long as it does not upset people too much:

Pope Francis said Thursday there are limits to freedom of expression, especially when it insults or ridicules someone's faith.

Francis spoke about the Paris terror attacks while en route to the Philippines, defending free speech as not only a fundamental human right but a duty to speak one's mind for the sake of the common good.

But he said there were limits.

By way of example, he referred to Alberto Gasparri, who organizes papal trips and was standing by his side aboard the papal plane.

"If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch," Francis said, throwing a pretend punch his way. "It's normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others."…

"There are so many people who speak badly about religions or other religions, who make fun of them, who make a game out of the religions of others," he said. "They are provocateurs. And what happens to them is what would happen to Dr. Gasparri if he says a curse word against my mother. There is a limit."

Francis also "said religion can never be used to justify violence," but his analogy suggests otherwise: If a punch in the nose is a normal and understandable response to an insult directed at one's mother, surely violence is a normal and understandable response to an insult directed at one's faith. It is what you would "expect," and therefore the blame lies with the one who issued the insult. Because certain messages predictably elicit a violent response, according to the pope, those messages should not be legally protected.

In the United States, this principle is known as the "fighting words" doctrine, which the Supreme Court enunciated in the 1942 case Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire. That decision involved Walter Chaplinsky, a Jehovah's Witness who attracted a hostile crowd by denouncing organized religion as a "racket" on the streets of Rochester, New Hampshire. He was arrested for calling a city marshal "a goddamned racketeer" and "a damned fascist." The Court concluded that Chaplinsky's arrest did not violate the First Amendment's free-speech guarantee because those epithets qualified as words that "by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace." The Court never again used the "fighting words" doctrine to uphold speech restrictions, and there are good reasons for that: Censorship based on an audience's anticipated emotional response is highly subjective and hard to distinguish from a heckler's veto, which encourages violence and gives hotheads the power to squelch speech that offends them.

In effect, Pope Francis expands the misbegotten (and apparently obsolete) "fighting words" doctrine from its original context of in-person, one-on-one encounters to published words and images that make people mad. Because that anger can be expected to result in violence, he says, those words and images cannot be tolerated. Call it the terrorist's veto.

This argument demeans Muslims, portraying them as irrational brutes unable to control their violent impulses; encourages violence by deeming it normal, expected, and (apparently) justified; and provides an astonishingly wide rationale for censorship, which Francis casts as a public safety measure that is necessary to keep the peace. The pope says "you cannot provoke," which means freedom of speech extends only to messages that no one finds objectionable. In other words, there is no freedom of speech.