April 27, 2015; NPQ Original Reporting

A number of interesting issues arose from a discussion of philanthropy’s role in free speech at a panel at the Council on Foundations’ annual meeting moderated by Brad Rourke of the Kettering Foundation. Like many of the discussions at this year’s conference, the panels have been idea- or thought-generators as opposed to delivering answers from on high, so to speak, and this one was very much that way. It actually turned into a discussion that was deeper, and in some ways richer, than it was presented.

Based on the program description, one might have thought there would have been something of a debate on the Charlie Hebdo situation—not whether the terrorist murders could be justified, because they can’t, but whether the Hebdo covers satirizing the Prophet Muhammad were over the top and harmful or hurtful to Muslims—but that really didn’t happen. Rather, the discussion was much more focused on the balancing the relationships among groups over strongly held beliefs.

Eboo Patel of the Interfaith Youth Core and Abdi Soltani of the ACLU of Northern California put the issue concretely. Patel raised the issue of abortion, and whether varying positions on the abortion rights of women are simply different views or something more fundamental. If they are simply different views, a disagreement, it means that people who are on opposite sides of the abortion issue can still work together on other issues. For example, Soltani noted that the ACLU and the Catholic Church are on diametrically opposed sides of the abortion debate, but they work together in many instances on the issue of opposing the death penalty. However, for some, the issue of abortion is more than a disagreement, but something fundamental, meaning that people who are on one side or the other of the issue cannot contemplate the possibility of working collaboratively with their opponents on issues outside of abortion.

Soltani gave the other example of this kind of question, the issue of policy regarding Israel and Palestine. For some—on both sides—the division on the rights and future of Palestine can be so significant that it closes off opportunities for engagement. We’ve seen that recently in the context of programs addressing Ferguson, a story covered by NPQ in which a museum in the St. Louis area pulled out of a program that made a connection between issues in the African-American community here and the challenges of Palestinians in the Middle East, and on the other side, African-American activists in the Ferguson area trying to exclude the participation of a liberal rabbi who had long been supportive of civil rights in the region but was seen by some participants as Zioinist and therefore unacceptable. Soltani noted that the Jewish community in the Bay Area of California generates a lot of philanthropic support for the engagement of the Muslim community here, particularly for Muslim freedom of religion in the U.S., though depending on whether they think the Palestinian issue is a matter of differing opinions or something more fundamental, some Muslims might not accept that fact.

The obvious example in NPQ’s recent coverage is its attention to—and support of—marriage rights for same-sex couples. There are clearly pockets of people in this country, and among NPQ’s readership, who see same-sex marriage as an absolute dividing line between legitimate and illegitimate behavior, to the point that some people cannot see any possibility of partnering or collaborating on issues that do not deal with LGBT marriage rights.

In Patel’s view, the ability of people to communicate and work together on some issues is critical to our way of life: “I don’t think you can have a diverse democracy if people who disagree on some things don’t agree that they can work together on others.” He restated it, saying, “The great tragedy is that because I can’t work with you on one thing, I can’t work with you on anything.”

This was one of several COF annual meeting panels where, directly or indirectly, the intersection of religion (or faith more generally) with philanthropy took center stage. As a matter of communications, it is that most of the great divides in the U.S. at this time have roots in or connections to religion, women’s reproductive rights and same-sex marriage among the most obvious. The challenge for philanthropy, the panelists suggested, is to find ways of bringing groups together around issues where they can collaborate. It is the “sweet spot,” Patel said, the ability to find and work with unlikely allies.

Ultimately, however, the issue is far more complex. Patel referenced the thinking of the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin to make his point about the difference between disagreement and more fundamental divisions over issues. But Berlin made a point about the nature of freedom that would be well worth the attention of foundations examining their potential roles in promoting or protecting free speech and free expression.

“It remains true that the freedom of some must at times be curtailed to secure the freedom of others,” Berlin wrote in his Four Essays on Liberty. “Upon what principle should this be done? If freedom is a sacred, untouchable value, there can be no such principle. One or other of these conflicting rules or principles must, at any rate in practice, yield: not always for reasons which can be clearly stated, let alone generalized into rules or universal maxims.”

Ultimately, the challenge for foundations promoting or protecting free speech comes in determining the balance between protecting and curtailing freedom of expression on issues that some hold as mere disagreement, even if profound, but that others see as fundamental or basic.—Rick Cohen