I am a huge proponent of the right--God-given or otherwise--to free speech. I think we live in an age where individualism is valued to such a degree, however, that 'freedom of speech' has the potential to become a tool. A political one, when used to silence the opponent, or even a religious one, when used to incite hate or anger onto another religion.

Over the past few days, the on-line Pagan community has come together over some clear examples of the latter form of free speech: several Facebook groups have come up slandering witches (mostly) and actively calling for the eradication of said witches. I leave witches un-capitalized because I fear the founder(s) of these groups are ignorant enough of the modern Pagan movement to be completely unaware that there is even a potential for religious views within the practice of Witchcraft.

These groups happen. They have happened before, and will happen again. In general, I feel freedom of speech applies in these instances: the founder(s) of those pages are within their right to create these pages and speak their mind. That said, freedom of speech should end where others get hurt--and people are getting hurt. From this point on, a monitoring authority should step in and take away the public forum that is used by those harmful to others.

I strongly feel that we should never shut up someone speaking their mind, but we can let them rage in the solitude of their own space. This is the mature, responsible thing to do: parents do it all the time, as do teachers, as so judges. This is the exact reason we make laws. We say: "you are a free human being, but others are free human beings as well. Within this building, this state, this country, this world, we have made rules you have been made aware of. These rules were made to make life better for everyone. If you ignore these rules, you will be punished. You have the right to free speech, you do, however, not have the right to be a jerk. If you are a jerk, I will make sure no one comes to harm."

Facebook has these rules in place. I was made aware of them when my request for these Facebook groups to be removed was denied. The qualifying factors for hate speech on Facebook are the following (emphasis mine):

"Facebook does not permit hate speech, but distinguishes between serious and humorous speech. While we encourage you to challenge ideas, institutions, events, and practices, we do not permit individuals or groups to attack others based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or medical condition."

I reported the groups I encountered, and asked others to do the same. I have realized now, though, that that is an effort in futility, as Facebook has obviously put an automatic response on any report of a violation concerning these groups. This is why you will find no link to these groups here.

For a while, Facebook's lack of (permanent) action puzzled me. I could not imagine how these pages did not qualify as hate speech towards a religious group. Then it hit me: in order for something to register as hate speech towards a religious group, the person judging the complaint needs to first appreciate that we are talking about an actual religion. Facebook, it seems, does not recognize Witchcraft as a religion, nor is aware--or willing to be made aware--that it is part of a larger movement within the religious firmament. I have two explanations for what happened, and both aren't pretty:
  1. Facebook does not recognize that Witchcraft is a religion--as most of the complaints were filed under 'religious hate speech'--and thus views these pages as humorous.
  2. Facebook is more inclined to side with the Christian side, and allowed the hate speech towards a smaller, not directly addressed, religious group to continue.
The first is a case of willful ignorance, which I find shameful and despicable. The second option is discrimination, and that is one of the things that authorities higher than the Facebook company can address, as discrimination is against the law in America, where Facebook HQ is located.

I take issue with the groups on Facebook and all that is posted on them, but I have a bigger problem with Facebook itself which had the opportunity to enforce their own laws, and failed to do so. This issue is no longer about free speech: that limit has been reached the second Facebook chose to disregard their own rules. It is now about a company willfully ignoring the rights of a specific group that make use of their service. That is a criminal act.

Heather Freysdottir has been my main source of information on this topic, and she has called for readers to report the Facebook pages to Interpol, so they can do what Facebook has neglected to do. I call for another course of action: to not report the page, but Facebook itself to a higher authority. Heather has rightly said that if you substitute 'Jews' for 'witches' the groups would have most likely--hopefully--been removed. Facebook's inability to act cannot go unchecked.

Paganism has come to a junction in its formation. In all honesty, we have been moving towards it for a while. We are coming into our own as a movement, and while our religious rights are still frequently tramples upon, we have also had our wins. We are ready to take on the greater responsibility of speaking up when we are done wrong. We have gotten the confidence for that, earned through long years of being laughed at and disregarded. We do not have to sit by and be silent. We are entitled to more and better than having to substitute 'Jews' for 'witches' ourselves, just to see how bad the situation is. Some of us in the Pagan community practice a religion--a true religion--with true Gods, no more but also no less important than God or Allah. We have the power and the right to stand up for that towards the outside world, and we have the right to be regarded as a movement that matters. Facebook--or any other company--cannot keep us from that right.

To help resolve this issue, there is a petition going around that I would ask you to sign. Petitions show support, and well-signed petition show greater support. I would ask you to sign it whether or not you consider yourself a witch, or even a Pagan. This is not about labels, it's about human rights.