Constitution protects the right to offend and criticize

Famous essayist and satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), as painted by Charles Jervas. Swift satirically advocated the practice of eating babies in his famous essay "A Modest Proposal." (Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)
Famous essayist and satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), as painted by Charles Jervas. Swift satirically advocated the practice of eating babies in his famous essay “A Modest Proposal.” (Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

It was one of the oldest essays I had to study for my English 2010 class. Written by one of the premier essayists of his time, the work in question lent itself well to the study of argumentative and persuasive writing.

It also advocated for the poor to eat babies to solve Irish poverty.

For those not familiar with Jonathan Swift’s 18th century essay “A Modest Proposal,” let me assure you that it is pure satire, directed at social engineers prone to treating the masses as mere statistics. Swift used an extreme example to prove the fallacies of his opponents, using rhetorical devices that even today seem extreme.

Still, Swift had every right to say it, even if he hadn’t been writing satire.

In light of the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the recent backlash the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has received from their press conference on LGBT rights and religious freedom, I think it’s important to review what United States constitutional religious freedom actually entails.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads, in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

This guarantees the civil liberties of free speech and the separation of church and state, as well as extends the free exercise of religion to U.S. citizens.

It does not protect any religion from criticism, even criticism of the boldest stripe.

The key here is to understand what is actually being protected: the people. No religion, defined as a mere set of ideas, is protected by the Constitution.

Ideas are not protected. The people holding those ideas are.

People in this country have the right to hold any belief they want without interference by the government. They can petition based on those beliefs and speak freely on behalf of their chosen ideology without fear of repercussion from the state.

They are not protected from criticism raised by others unless it is libelous. Just as you have the right to believe, I have the right to challenge that belief.

There is no idea so noble, no religion so respected, that is safe from criticism. That is what being part of a healthy democracy is all about. Ideally, the good ideas thrive and the bad ones are rooted out.

If you are offended by what I say, that’s fine. Make your opinion vocal. Go ahead. Criticize my words, or me, if you’re feeling up to it. You have as much a right to free speech as I do.

Voltaire, a key influence on American democracy, understood this paradox well. Though the saying, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” was never written by the man, it expresses well the concept of free speech he pioneered.

To those who take offense at criticism, know this: Criticism forms the bedrock of social change. Those who criticize are usually just trying to help.