In a bold challenge to free speech, an American atheist organization was forced to remove two billboards in the U.S. city of Charlotte, North Carolina after being inundated with threats to staff members and volunteers. The billboards criticized the religious faiths of the current U.S. presidential candidates, one targeting the Mormon beliefs of Republican candidate Mitt Romney, the other taking aim at Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s mainline Protestant faith. It is unfortunate that this group chose such an unsavory way to convey their message, but even more so that religious dissent should be met with threats of violence. As Americans, we should all defend everybody’s right to express their beliefs without fear for their safety.
Local conservatives were incensed at the atheists’ irreverence. Indeed, there are much more productive ways to make the group’s arguments and the Universal Life Church frowns upon their poking fun at these religions, but it is certainly within their rights. Alluding to LDS doctrine, the billboard on Mormonism joked that “God is a space alien” and mocked the practice of baptizing the souls of dead non-Mormons. It also critiqued the LDS church’s role in financing the Proposition 8 measure in California which overturned that state’s gay marriage law, describing the church as a symbol of “Big Money, Big Bigotry.” Meanwhile, the billboard targeting Obama’s faith described the Christian god as “sadistic” and referred to Jesus Christ as a “useless savior,” criticizing the “30,000+ versions of ‘truth'” found in the Bible and claiming the faith “promotes hate” but “calls it love.” The resulting backlash has created a sticky situation for many ULC ministers, who may be Christian or Mormon but also support freedom of speech.
The American Atheists planned to post these billboards in both Tampa and Charlotte, the cities hosting the Republican convention and the Democratic convention, respectively. But they could not find a single billboard company in Tampa willing to lease space for the signs. This is perfectly fine, of course, as billboards are privately owned, and we would curtail the freedoms of these owners if we forced them to agree to provide the space for any applicant. If all the owners of these spaces in Tampa disagreed with the message or the way it was conveyed, no one should make them to put them up. The problem arose when the group found a successful site in Charlotte and threats of violence from religious zealots were made.
Freedom of speech is a two-way street. Those whose opinions differ from the message portrayed by these billboards can certainly make their voices heard. Expressing dissent, even in unsavory ways (including the message of the billboards themselves) is constitutionally protected, but fighting words* such as threats are not. It is unfortunate that some people feel the need to threaten the safety of these secularists for expressing their beliefs. We should champion the freedoms that define our nation, express our dissent in legal and non-violent ways, and try to encourage a more civil discourse among groups.
*What constitutes “fighting words” is not merely the language used, but a certain intent and context. For more on this tricky issue, we recommend you visit Freedom Forum.