Clinton Chisholm | Bain's lesson for religious right
Right after news broke of Prof Brendan Bain's dismissal from his post at the UWI years ago, I lashed the committee in an intended newspaper column thus: "[W]hen a UWI group behaves the way Prof. Nigel Harris' committee has behaved, then it is just possible they are all afflicted with the other AIDS virus - acquired integrity deficiency syndrome? Why this broadside against my intellectual superiors? Well, it seems to me, having read Bain's report to the Belize court, that the UWI committee surrendered logic to political correctness."
Now that the Supreme Court has ruled in Bain's favour and slapped the UWI for wrongful dismissal and for breaching the esteemed scientist's right of freedom of expression, we dare not miss an easily overlooked point.
The right to freedom of expression has little, if anything, to do with the accuracy or probative value of the expression (except, of course, where the expression can cause harm or detriment to the person or rights of others).
Fearing that the paragraph above was just my unlearned, even crazy, musings, I sent it to three lawyer friends asking if it was accurate or correctly worded. [By the way, as a pastor, I tell the people I serve that I am half-crazy so they should feel free to question me after any sermon or Bible study]. Now I know that I am asking you to take it by faith that the quotations below are real. I have not given the names simply because I did not seek their permission to quote them, though they know I was preparing this article.
One said succinctly, "Apparently it can even be offensive and distasteful. Just not defamatory." Another advised: "Perhaps it should be rephrased to say that the exercise of the right to freedom of expression does not also mean that what is said needs to be either factually accurate or even intelligible."
The third, a lecturer in law, counselled: "Yes, freedom of expression should not harm the reputation of others, but there are other restrictions as well. I encourage you to look at the restrictions carefully. For example, assume I am in a crowded cinema and I shout, "Fire!" If there is no fire, I am acting contrary to law. If there is a fire, I am not. This example could be covered by your general statement, but I do not think persons reading your sentence would be guided clearly on the point."
So then, here is my vital lesson for conservative Evangelicals (such as I am) and other religious folk especially.
Freedom for all
You can't defensibly celebrate Prof Brendan Bain's freedom of expression yet demonise others (like Bishop Howard Gregory and President Garnett Roper) when they exercise their right to freedom of expression in a view with which you disagree!
So taking the informed guidance of my lawyer friends, I can say freedom of expression gives one the right to freely express what may be factually incorrect (if no one can be harmed by the error) and even logically flawed in argumentation.
To put it more bluntly, one could say you are free to be foolish in your expression as long as your expression is not likely to cause anyone any harm.
Being no lawyer, I see the legal notion of 'freedom of expression' [broader by the way than 'freedom of speech' a fact I learn from reading the judgement in Bain's case] as conceptual freedom, freedom to express ideas that are not likely to injure anyone or trample on the rights of anyone.
I hope we religious folk especially learn this vital lesson from the Bain experience. As before, I beg religious leaders to encourage critical thinking among their members in their worship centres.
- Clinton Chisholm is a theologian. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.