The Price of Freedom

I barely know anyone who would not be appalled to hear me say, “Leave Israel Folau alone. Of course he should be free to play rugby; compete in the World Cup; take on the All Blacks.” For American and UK readers Folau is a very good Australian rugby player who has the bad habit of saying outrageous stuff on social media. His most recent outburst said, “Warning: Drunks. Homosexuals. Adulterers. Liars. Fornicators. Thieves. Atheists. Idolaters. Hell awaits you. Only Jesus saves.”

Australian Rugby has found him guilty of a “high level breach of the professional players’ code of conduct”. The three-person panel has now retired to decide on a sanction for Folau. For the good of sport, for the welfare of rugby and for the health of our way of life I hope Folau gets off. But before you start throwing bricks through my living room window let me explain why.

Of course what Folau said is impossibly disgusting. Of course it has no Christian merit. It has no Muslim merit either, or Hindu or Buddhist or any other faith that I’m aware of. As a person his words show Folau to be a sanctimonious, dumb bigot, hooked on the Old Testament and well short of the glory of his God. Folau needs to remember that in his religion God’s son said, in Luke 6:37, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

The Quran gives Folau the same message. In 39.54 the Quran says, “O My Devotees, who have committed excesses against their own selves, do not despair of the mercy of Allah. Surely, Allah forgives all sins. Indeed He is the most Forgiving, the Merciful.”

And so I have nothing but contempt for what Folau said. His attack on members of the gay community and others is despicable. It shows him to be worthy of nothing but our absolute contempt. He may be a good rugby player but he certainly falls short of the standards required of a decent human being.

Being gay is not a sin. Linking gays with thieves and liars is vile and shameful. Being as rich as Folau is puts him at more risk of Christian wrath than any of those he nominates for eternal damnation.

BUT – I defend without qualification Folau’s right to express his opinions without sanction by the Australian Rugby Union or anyone else.

My opinion on Folau was first settled in 1988 in the United States. I know United States’ law is not New Zealand or Australian law but, in this case, what the American Supreme Court decided has a message for us all. The case is called “Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46”.

Known for its explicit pictures of nude women and political satire, Hustler magazine printed a parody ad that targeted Jerry Falwell, a prominent Christian fundamentalist televangelist.

The Hustler parody included the transcript of a spoof interview, where, misunderstanding the interviewer’s question about his first time drinking Campari, Falwell casually shares details about his first sexual encounter, an incestuous rendezvous with his mother in the family outhouse while they were both “drunk off our God-fearing asses on Campari.” Finally, the interviewer clarifies that he’s asking if Falwell had tried Campari, again, Falwell answered, “I always get sloshed before I go out to the pulpit. You don’t think I could lay down all that bullshit sober, do you?”

Of course Hustler’s parody was disgusting. But the American Supreme Court decision contains lessons for the Australian Rugby Union. This is what the Court said.

“At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern. The freedom to speak one’s mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty – and thus a good unto itself – but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole. We have therefore been particularly vigilant to ensure that individual expressions of ideas remain free from governmentally imposed sanctions.” The First Amendment envisions the sort of robust political debate that takes place in a democracy.

The Court held that the First Amendment gives speakers immunity from sanction with respect to their speech unless their speech is false and made with “actual malice”. Although false statements lack inherent value, the “breathing space” that freedom of expression requires in order to flourish must tolerate occasional false statements, lest there be an intolerable chilling effect on speech that does have constitutional value.”

It may sound incredibly arrogant but I agree with the American Supreme Court. Although Folau’s thoughts and ideas are repugnant and have no place in any society, although Folau would be better off in a shed preaching his hate to likeminded bigots, although seeing him on a rugby field turns my stomach – more important by far is “the freedom to speak one’s mind. It is not only an aspect of individual liberty – and thus a good in itself – but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole.”

And so I am hoping Folau gets off this charge. He will not be a better person because of it. But his country, his sport and all of us everywhere will be better and stronger as a result.

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