Thursday, January 15, 2015


Early Christians held martyrs in such high esteem that many Christians began to provoke the Romans in hopes of being arrested and martyred. Clement of Alexandria stepped in and laid down a rule for how to go about becoming a martyr—do your best NOT to become a martyr. Don’t compromise your beliefs, but don’t go around begging people to persecute you for your beliefs.

Sir Thomas More serves as an example of the correct behavior of martyrs. He did not agree with the separation of the Church of England from the Catholic Church; he did not think it proper that the king be the head of the church; and he thought Henry VIII’s marriage to Ann Boleyn was bigamous. He did not bang a drum, call up a crowd, and loudly proclaim these beliefs, but he lost his job as the Lord Chancellor of England for holding them. Henry began requiring his officials to take an oath to the king as the supreme head of the church, and More resigned to avoid taking the oath. Pressed to take the oath, he refused, and was eventually beheaded for treason. More had his convictions, and he refused to abandon them in the face of pressure, but he did not actively try to provoke Henry.

The First Amendment to the Constitution was adopted to protect freedom of religious belief and freedom of expression, and to keep people like Thomas More safe from persecution. Freedom of speech was never intended to be absolute. At least in theory you cannot falsely shout “fire” in a crowded room; you cannot incite riots; you cannot ask another person to commit a crime for you; you cannot advocate the violent overthrow of the United States Government. At one time you had no right to utter “fighting words.” Speech of such nature as to provoke a violent reaction from ordinary people could be forbidden. The “fighting words” restriction on freedom of speech has eroded over the years to such a point that it is impossible to legislate against offensive speech of any kind.

There is one area, however, where the utterance of “fighting words” is unprotected. If you verbally provoke someone beyond endurance and he kills you, he just might be able to escape criminal punishment because the homicide was “excusable.” South Dakota’s definition of excusable homicide is typical. It reads: “Homicide is excusable if committed by accident and misfortune in the heat of passion, upon sudden and sufficient provocation, or upon a sudden combat. However, to be excusable, no undue advantage may be taken nor any dangerous weapon used and the killing may not be done in a cruel or unusual manner.” South Dakota Codified Laws § 22-16-31.  

Here’s how it can work: Larry Libel uses the most obscene language he can imagine to tell Sam Sorehead that Sorehead’s mother was a prostitute in a Nevada brothel, that Sorehead’s biological father was a serial sex offender, and that Sorehead worships a false god. Sorehead loses his temper and pokes Libel in the nose with his bare fist. Libel falls to the ground, strikes his head on a rock, suffers massive brain injury, and dies. Sorehead has committed an excusable homicide is not guilty of murder or manslaughter. If, however, Sorehead whips out a knife and stabs Libel, or if he goes home and gets his AK-47 and comes back and shoots Libel, Sorehead is guilty of murder. In any event it is a tragedy that Libel dies, but many worthy persons would have a hard time generating much sympathy for Libel.

The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who recently died are being touted in some quarters as martyrs to freedom of speech. I am sorry they got killed and I hope that their killers are brought to justice, but I have trouble seeing them as martyrs to anything other than discourtesy. They are certainly not martyrs in the spirit of Thomas More. I went online and reviewed as many Charlie Hebdo covers as I could find, and it is obvious that they try to be as lewd, filthy, repulsive, disgusting, and offensive as they possibly can—you might accurately describe the covers as “fighting words” or “fighting pictures.” Take a look for yourself and see if you agree:

The use of profanity, obscenity, and lewdness in order get a laugh has always impressed me as evidence that the comedian in question is lacking in imagination. I find myself agreeing with something that an Al Jazeera English editor wrote. He quoted from a Time magazine article by Bruce Crumley which said "Defending freedom of expression in the face of oppression is one thing; insisting on the right to be obnoxious and offensive just because you can is infantile."