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Caged Pussy Riot: Protecting the Peace or Putin’s Political Revenge?

Caged Pussy Riot: Protecting the Peace or Putin’s Political Revenge?

September 14, 2012
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Between YouTube videos sparking Middle Eastern riots and the Westboro Baptist Church continuing its ministry one hateful protest at a time, recent headlines illustrate the unique place that Free Speech rights occupy in American society and jurisprudence.  While these particular examples of expression are obviously disturbing to many, it is just such offensive speech that is most important to defend.  By protecting the most egregious and distasteful speech, we ensure that all other expression remains comfortably within the fold of First Amendment protection.  However, this mantra of perpetual tolerance for the unpopular voice – no matter how difficult it may be – is a uniquely American axiom.  Especially true in this world of tech-based immediate gratification, we don’t think twice about the instantly accessible 140 character religious soapbox thanks to Twitter, or Facebook’s uncanny ability to spawn a political rant with one too many four-letter words at your fingertips.  Free speech is something that Americans actually dub as a right.  The unfortunate reality is that freedom of expression is often a luxury in other parts of the globe.

A Moscow court sentenced three members of Pussy Riot, a Russian feminist punk rock band, to “two years depravation of liberty in a penal colony” for charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”  The sentence stems from an unauthorized performance of the group’s song “Virgin Mary, Get Putin Out” during a church service at a Moscow cathedral.  The song addresses the lack of division between church and state and criticizes the presidential administration’s alleged symbiotic relationship with Russia’s largest religious sect, the Orthodox Church.  Citing to Head Patriarch Kirill’s public support for Putin in Russia’s presidential election as a prime example of the incestuous theopolitical relationship, Pussy Riot claims that their protest art simply speaks against Kirill and Putin’s conservative tendencies and the well-publicized close ties between the two.  Although having fled Russia in fear of further persecution, the remaining members of Pussy Riot continue disseminating the band’s message.  Presumably responding to the band’s continued rebellion, Russian officials then called Pussy Riot’s lawyers before the Moscow Police Investigation Committee for alleged participation in a protest rally on the eve of Putin’s May inauguration.  The interrogation summons came just days after a video surfaced of the estranged Pussy Riot members thanking their supporters and subsequently burning a photo of President Putin.

The band’s sentence was met with condemnation across the board.  Dubbing them “prisoners of conscience,” Amnesty International stated that the band’s detention is a result of simple expression of personal beliefs.  Both, the EU Foreign Affairs Office and the U.S. State Department, denounced the court’s decision by questioning the alleged politically-motivated prosecutions and the resulting “disproportionate” sentences.  Protests in support of the band have been held around the globe, including a St. Petersburg music festival which commenced this past Monday despite numerous threats from city officials urging to cancel the event.  Dozens of musicians and celebrities have joined the ranks of supporters, and are calling on their fans to recognize the harm Russian officials are doing to artistic expression.  Madonna found herself targeted by government scrutiny after officials promised to closely monitor her concert for “homosexual propaganda,” as such “Western values” are now criminalized as “promoting homosexuality to minors.”

As some music geeks might already realize, Pussy Riot’s politically-charged, expletive-laden lyrics are reminiscent of the U.S.’s very own Riot Grrrl Movement.  In the early-90’s, underground female empowerment bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy dominated the American punk rock scene with a similar ‘bull in a china shop” approach to modern feminist discourse.  Notoriously anti-government and anti-sexism, the Riot Grrrl Movement condemned traditional social themes from capitalistic greed to conventional gender roles.  The Riot Grrrl bands performed with the common goal of calling for action against the status quo – such actions were often unpopular and even offensive.  Admittedly, Pussy Riot should not be exempt from reprimand simply because their illegal performances are accompanied by political expression.  That said, common sense alone warrants questioning the proportionality of what amounts to a zoning violation warranting two years of incarceration in a Russian prison.  Political activism and a healthy dose of social dissonance are crucial to the civic evolution of any society regardless of its placement on the globe.  Arguably, this suggests the only thing separating Pussy Riot and Riot Grrrl bands is the First Amendment.   

Prosecutors claimed that the cathedral performance was intended to directly insult the Russian Orthodox Church.  Congregants found offense in that insult, and having to witness such overwhelming offensiveness resulted in “grievous harm” to them as Orthodox Christians – this amounted to a hate crime.  There you have it: three women dancing and shouting for under 60 seconds in a religious venue may cause witnesses to be so profoundly offended, that such actions couldn’t have any other purpose but to convey hate speech.  In all actuality, the performance may have been vulgar and even disarmingly insulting.  But to foster the delicate balance between unpopular speech and the unwilling listener, only communication likely to result in imminent violence may qualify as true hate speech.  The Russian court found that the band’s actions “crudely undermined social order.”  Even so, any such activities – no matter how crude – are still a substantial leap to hate crime.  Preservation of “social order” does not permit the U.S. government to censor speech.  Admittedly, the average American would prefer to keep their Sunday church service a low-key affair.  However, should a group of rocker chicks donning combat boots and luchador masks arrive, screaming their discontent with President Obama and organized religion, the likelihood of the disruption amounting to hate speech is slim to none…at least under U.S. law.  

The E.U.’s Organization for Security and Cooperation recently recognized a growing trend in Eastern Europe where government, lobbyist groups and even court systems are “taking a more restrictive stance on content deemed offensive, morally questionable or dangerous for children.”  Fittingly, Putin’s infamous intolerance for dissent has recently hit a new high.  In the three short months since resuming the presidency, Putin has “directed at least 19 political cases to the Russian courts” and allowed parliament to enact laws restricting public protest and reinstating criminal libel.  The fines for protest-related offenses were increased exponentially and now range from $9,000-30,000, depending on one’s level of involvement.  The draconian legislation even likens citizens engaging in political activities with foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations to “agents of foreign interest” (read: spies).  Clearly meant to encumber activist groups, the laws arrived hot on the heels of Putin’s latest erosion of civil rights; Bill 89417-6, Russia’s Internet censorship legislation.  The Bill allows Russian domains to be blacklisted without judicial oversight if officials find the site’s material “extremist in nature” or “harmful to minors.”  Should the website fail to remove the offending material within 24 hours of notification, the service provider must block the entire site.  Despite its gravity and global implications, the Bill’s week long sprint through Parliament ensured the inevitable and it will become law on November 1.  Although publicized as a safety directive, there’s little doubt that the Bill will be used as yet another instrument of oppression to silence Putin’s opposition. 

Protecting offensive speech – whether pertaining to religion, politics, sex, etc. – is crucial to ensure that all speech remains protected.  Intimidation tactics used to silence the opposition is nothing short of sheer cowardice.  When those tactics are employed by government officials to selectively prosecute political opponents and dissenting voices such actions are shockingly short sighted as those in positions of political power should unquestionably recognize the importance of protecting the marketplace of ideas.  As is often said, the cure for bad speech is simply more speech, not censorship.  As we may see in the coming months, decisions like the one at hand create a very predictable chilling effect.  When witnessing such injustice at the hands of all three political branches, it’s only a matter of time until the Russian citizenry allows fear of government retaliation to dictate expression of their opinions, thus effectively eliminating public discourse of certain topics.  Say what you will about Pussy Riot’s message, government restraint on that message is purely a pretext for censorship.  Taking into account Putin’s history and recent Russian legislation, it’s virtually certain that Pussy Riot won’t be seeing a presidential pardon in their future.  But with the appeal slated for October 1, and both sides showing no sign of waning, the Pussy Riot saga is far from over and will undoubtedly have a lasting impact on Russia.  Given the international attention this incident has received, and the resulting uniform condemnation of blatant censorship, we can hope that one defining American value will begin to take hold internationally – Freedom of Speech.   


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