You need not dig deep into the annals of history to find
examples of religious bloodshed. From the Crusades to the Inquisition to the terrorist
attacks seven years ago today, dogmatic interpretations of religious doctrine -
spanning almost every set of beliefs - have contributed to countless deaths and
persisting cleavages. But does censoring theological texts and statements remove these hatreds?
Administrators at the University of Southern California (USC),
after recently deleting sections from a Muslim student group website, appear to
think so. The material in question is a collection of hadith, or proclamations
passed down in the Muslim faith but not included in the Quran. These particular
hadith - the aggrieved party pointed to five different statements - concerned the killing of Jews.
A surface reading could lead one to believe that the
statements are threats. Upon closer examination, though, these hadith are
evidence of a mode of thought in Islamic tradition, far from a clear
instructional guide for most practicing believers. Censoring these statements,
in the presence of thousands of other nonviolent hadith on the student website,
not only violates key principles of academic freedom, but it is an
unconstitutional form of censorship.
To understand this case, one must first examine the role of
hadith in the Muslim religion. In short, hadith are the words and actions of
the prophet Muhammad that have been passed down through generations, mainly by
oral means. Because of this narrative nature, there are varying degrees of
hadith authenticity. Both the actual words (matn)
and the chain of narration (sanad)
play an important role in determining validity. Indeed, some hadith flatly
contradict others, and scholars carefully examine the origins and paths of each
transmission, a practice known as the science of hadith. And the conclusions
are different for each Muslim sect. Some reject the hadith used by others - for
example, the six major hadith collections that are central to Sunni belief are
not followed by a majority of Shi'a. Thus, the hadith is considered an
important but ultimately supplemental guide to the Quran in Muslim living.
On the website of the Muslim Student Association (MSA),
a now defunct student group whose site is hosted by the Muslim Student Union on
the USC server, is a compendium of
Muslim texts. These include information on the pillars of belief, a section
on misconceptions about Islam, and a searchable database of hadith. At
the search page, there is a preface: "[W]e would like to warn you that this
database is merely a tool, and not a substitute for learning, much
less scholarship in Islam." (The site also makes clear that the views expressed
are not affiliated with those of the
Using this tool, Rabbi Aron Hier of the Simon
a Jewish human-rights organization, found five hadith that advocated violence
toward Jews, he said. After bringing it to the attention of a USC trustee, the university took action. Provost C.
L. Max Nikias said "the passage cited is truly despicable...We did some
investigations and have ordered the passage to be removed." The material was
subsequently deleted, the Daily Trojan,
USC's student newspaper, reported.
Was this censorship necessary? Charlotte Korchak, incoming
president of USC's Students for Israel
and a member of the Hillel Jewish Center, thinks not. "I understand the fear of
Jews and why some might have an issue of it being up. I understand the reaction
of trying to get them removed," she told the Trojan. "At the same
time, is that really going to help? I'm Jewish and those are hard to read and
hard to comprehend, but it's their religion and it's a historical thing. To
leave them out would be a lie."
Not only would it arguably be a lie, but it would certainly
be a statutory violation if the
action was challenged in court. Because of a 1992 California
statute known as Leonard's Law, First Amendment protections are applied to
all private colleges and universities
in the state. The Bill of Rights applies only to governmental organizations,
including public universities, but this law extends protection to private
institutions of higher education. Thus, the same standards for censorship apply
to USC (a private university) as
those schools funded by the state, giving administrators far less leeway in
restricting student expression.
To uphold their censorship, administrators would have to
show that the website was likely to produce "imminent lawless action." This
criterion is based on the opinion in Brandenburg
v. Ohio (1969), where a Ku Klux Klan leader made inflammatory statements
at a rally in rural Ohio. At the
rally, references were made to the possibility of "revengeance" against
"niggers" and "Jews," among other instances of hate speech. Brandenburg
was found guilty under a Criminal Syndicalism statute, but the Supreme Court
reversed the conviction, declaring that the government could not punish simply
the advocacy of unlawful action. Because Brandenburg
could not conceivably execute what he claimed in his fiery speeches, much less
do so imminently, the high court
ruled that his speech wasn't worth prior punishment.
It is against this standard that the USC
administrators would have to justify their action, and their case would
undoubtedly be weak. The words were religious doctrine, and though they
certainly expressed intolerance, it is highly unlikely that they would have
spurned a student to actually kill their Jewish peers - much less to do so
And the censorship also reeks of viewpoint discrimination.
If Bible passages were posted to a USC
website, would there be the same outcry for suppression? Leviticus 20:13, says, according to the New
International Version, "If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both
of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood
will be on their own heads." Indeed, this excerpt could be seen as advocating
violence against homosexuals, but unless it would do so imminently, rather than
over the long term, the passage may not be prohibited or censored.
Debating the violent tendencies of world religions is not
important to this case, though. Preserving academic freedom is.
When one hosts all points of view, there is a very practical
benefit. Those who are offended know who holds what views, and who, if they
deem necessary, to avoid. It is part of the genius of free speech - even hatred
has a useful purpose. Suppression only shoots the messenger, but it does little
to deter the message.
The MSA's site hosts
thousands of hadith. It is, as the site mentions, a tool for scholarly
research, a device for the continuing evaluation of hadith authenticity. Rather
than remove certain texts that are offensive to some, the site should be a
forum through which students and faculty (and anyone else, for that matter) can
glean truth from competing ideas. Rather than trying to change history by
running from doctrine, we should encourage the dialogue that has largely made
these radical viewpoints obsolete.