Islamophobia: How Offensive is “Grossly” Offensive?
On January 5, 2016, District Judge McNally of Belfast Crown Court, Northern Ireland, delivered his judgment on the now famous (or infamous) Islamophobia case. In a victory for free speech and freedom of religion, Pastor James McConnell who, in a sermon on May 18, 2014 preached that “Islam is heathen, Islam is Satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell,” was acquitted of the charge of “sending or causing to be sent by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that was grossly offensive, contrary to section 127(1)(a) of the Communications Act 2003.”
To express that in plain speech, while Pastor McConnell’s sermon was offensive, it was not criminal speech, and, as such, it is (for now) protected speech. I use the words “for now” advisedly.
While the UK and Europe, unlike the USA, do not have a “First Amendment” as such, freedom of speech and religion is enshrined (to some extent) in British and European Law.
The Communications Act was originally designed to punish those guilty of sending threatening or menacing messages. For example, should a person call a post office with a “bomb scare,” or send a threatening e-mail to another person, such communications would be deemed criminal. In recent years, Facebook posts and Tweets have got various people into legal hot water—one young man in Wales was jailed some years ago for online racial abuse, for example.
District Judge McNally in his judgment outlines his reasoning:
I must ask myself the following questions:
(A) Did Pastor McConnell send a message which was offensive? If “no” I must acquit him.
(B) If “yes” was the message grossly offensive? If “no” I must acquit him.
(C) If “yes” did he intend the message to be grossly offensive to the Muslim community and those who follow the Islamic faith? If “yes” I must convict him of the offence.
(D) If “no” must he have realized there was a risk of grossly offending the Muslim community? If “yes” he is guilty of the offence and if “no” he is not guilty.1
It would appear that the judge had to differentiate between “offensive” and “grossly offensive;” and—crucially—the judge had to determine intention: Did McConnell intend to offend the Muslim community by his remarks?
Although the judge did acquit McConnell, he chides McConnell quite extensively:
For my part I agree entirely with Mr. Russell [of the prosecution, MM] that they are easily capable of being construed as grossly offensive. Pastor McConnell is absolutely entitled to criticize the Islamic faith in a robust and trenchant manner, but entirely absent from this 35 minute sermon is any attempt to set out the doctrines and teachings of the Islamic faith and then to dissect them and set out in a clear and concise way the grounds upon which he takes issue with those beliefs. On the contrary, he has done nothing other than indulge in a bout of name calling. Indeed I struggle to think of anything more offensive to say about another person’s sincerely held beliefs than that those beliefs are satanical and “spawned in hell.” This is not just an attack on Islamic doctrine. When broken down the message he is getting across is that all those who subscribe to the Islamic faith are disciples of the Devil. This was further illustrated by him when, sandwiched in between his description of Allah as being a heathen, cruel and demon deity and the above description of Islam he preaches “you cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of devils, you cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table and of the tables of devils.” Indeed his use of the word “spawned” in the context in which he uses it is highly pejorative in that it depicts a sticky, messy and multiple birth.
…Having said that I am satisfied that, on either an objective or subjective test, that, he must have realized that there was a risk of offence being caused and, unfortunately ignored it. Pastor McConnell has honed his skills as a communicator over 60 years and cannot have been unaware that there was such a risk. This finding is further evidenced by his statement at the commencement of his sermon that “he could be misunderstood.”
…Having considered all these matters and the particular facts of this case I have come to the conclusion that the words upon which the charges are based, whilst offensive, do not reach the high threshold required of being “grossly offensive”…the courts need to be very careful not to criminalize speech which, however contemptible, is no more than offensive. It is not the task of the criminal law to censor offensive utterances. Accordingly I find Pastor McConnell not guilty.
The case is interesting for a number of reasons, and it ought to be interesting to preachers who broadcast sermons online.
First, while the “Islam is satanic” statement grabbed the headlines, the main issue at the trial was Pastor McConnell’s broad labeling of the “Muslim community:” “Now people say that there are good Moslems in Britain. That may be so, but I don’t trust them.” McConnell appeared to label all Muslims as potential terrorists who want to stone infidels to death. Later, he clarified his comments—he only meant Muslims who follow Sharia law. The prosecution argued, “He was characterizing the followers of an entire religion in a stereotypical way and that was grossly offensive and not protected by saying it from the pulpit. Nor was it protected by the Convention principles on freedom of expression and freedom of speech.” It would appear that if we preachers keep broad-brush generalities and political commentary out of the pulpit, we should be safe.
Second, the judge recognizes a difference between an exegetical, theological critique of an opponent’s theological position, on the one hand, and a name-calling rant, on the other. That was exactly my criticism of McConnell’s sermon when I first addressed this subject in the September 1, 2014 edition of the SB (vol. 90, no. 20). If we preachers stick to exegesis and theology, we should be able to avoid falling foul of the law.
Third, the judge, in the course of the trial, had the entire court listen to Pastor McConnell’s sermon. This was necessary to ascertain both the content and the context of what was said. If I am ever hauled before the courts, I hope that my sermon will be played in a similar manner, since it would, I hope, be a powerful witness to the truth of the gospel.
Fourth, and finally, the day is coming when a judge will be less favorable than District Judge McNally. No matter how carefully we express the truth, the truth itself offends unbelievers. The truth that we are all sinners, that God is holy, and that Jesus is the only Savior is offensive to the flesh. One man’s “offensive” is another’s “grossly offensive.” That the courts decide this is itself a troubling development. A future judge may well say that we have no right at all to criticize Islam from the pulpit. A future judge may forbid us from calling certain actions “sin” and certain persons “sinners.” A future judge may forbid us to speak at all in the name of Jesus ().
When that day comes, we must obey God rather than men (); we must be willing to suffer for the sake of Jesus Christ; we must count ourselves blessed for the privilege (Acts 5:41); and, in the meantime, we need to pray for grace to endure ( ).
Planned Parenthood “Sting Operation” Boomerangs
Last summer, a group called the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) released a series of undercover videos taken at various Planned Parenthood facilities in the USA. Planned Parenthood, founded by Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), is America’s largest provider of “reproductive health care.” By reproductive health care, we should understand especially abortion. Planned Parenthood receives hundreds of millions of dollars from state and federal governments. Despite an attempt by some in the U. S. Congress to defund the abortion giant, that funding continues: tax revenue pays for the murder of unborn children, although that is not unique to America.
The undercover videos shocked many who took the time either to watch them or to read reports concerning them. They expose Planned Parenthood’s harvesting of the body parts of aborted babies. In them, Planned Parenthood officials describe how they could alter the abortion procedure to harvest different types of organs from aborted babies. The Washington Post quotes from the first video:
“I’d say a lot of people want liver,” she [a Planned Parenthood official, MM] says in the video, drinking wine and eating salad with anti-abortion activists posing as medical company representatives. Later in the video, she continues: “We’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know that, so I’m not gonna crush that part, I’m gonna basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact.”2
According to the Washington Post, Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, made two comments about the scandal. First, she apologized not for the content of the video as such, but for the casual tone in which the doctor discussed the issue. It lacked compassion, she said: compassion for the women accessing the abortion facilities. And, second, she “emphatically defended the organization’s tissue donation program, which she said is purely voluntary for the women and does not yield a profit for Planned Parenthood.” In other words, the issue for Planned Parenthood is the legality of selling babies’ organs, not the moral issue of murdering the babies and harvesting their organs. To murder babies and harvest their organs for medical research is evil, whether or not Planned Parenthood makes a profit in so doing. That, of course, is not how Richards sees it.
The CMP released eleven videos in total, and faced legal battles over the release of others. Planned Parenthood’s defense has been consistent—the organization has done nothing illegal, and the videos are heavily edited to make Planned Parenthood look bad. Besides, they cry, CMP is an evil, anti-choice group, which wants to rob women of “reproductive rights” and “health care choices,” because we live in a world where to murder the unborn is a “healthcare choice,” not a crime.
Finally, in a twisted example of “shoot the messenger,” a grand jury in Harris County, Houston, Texas refused to investigate Planned Parenthood, but instead investigated David Daleiden, the president of the CMP, the company that produced the videos. The grand jury indicted Daleiden and his colleague on two counts, a misdemeanor charge of attempting to buy human tissue, and a felony charge of tampering with a government record. The felony charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. The same grand jury brought no charges whatsoever against Planned Parenthood. Daleiden’s felony charge is based on the fact that, in order to infiltrate Planned Parenthood, he used a fake ID. Incredibly, he is charged with attempting to buy human tissue, while Planned Parenthood is not charged with attempting to sell human tissue. Where there is a buyer, is there not also a seller? It is also incredible that buying/selling human tissue is a misdemeanor (the human tissue in question is babies’ organs—livers, hearts, lungs, etc.!), while tampering with a government record is a felony.
While I do not condone lying, justice has surely been turned on its head in this case. What Daleiden has done, if nothing else, is to expose the humanity of the unborn, something abortionists are desperate to hide. If they have human organs to harvest, they are human, and not blobs of tissue or mere “fetuses.” If this case ever comes to trial, Planned Parenthood officials may be required to testify under oath (so far Daleiden is refusing a possible plea bargain and is demanding an apology).
As another case in point, during this year’s Superbowl (which, since it was on the Lord’s Day, none of our readers should have watched) an advertisement for Doritos aired that featured an unborn child on an ultrasound. The advertisement was rather silly, and the manufacturer of Doritos was not making a political point, but NARAL (The National Abortion Rights Action League) took offense. They tweeted, “#NotBuyingIt—that @Doritos ad using #antichoice tactic of humanizing fetuses & sexist tropes of dads as clueless & moms as uptight. #SB50.”3
NARAL is not happy—the advertisement “humanized the fetus.” In other words, the advertisement dared to make unborn babies look like unborn human babies, and that is intolerable to the abortion lobby. A baby is only a baby when the mother wants it to be a baby. Otherwise, every woman should have the right to kill it right up to the point of birth, and in some cases, beyond birth.
Babylon is drunk with blood. Come quickly, Lord Jesus!
1 The judge’s ruling can be read in its entirety online, http://www.courtsni.gov.uk/en-GB/Judicial Decisions/PublishedByYear/Documents/2016/ (scroll down to 5 Jan 2016 date), accessed February 15, 2016. All subsequent citations in this article are from this document. Italics added are mine.