Pussy Riot, a Russian band of three women described as feminists, was recently sentenced to two years in prison for “hooliganism.” The group was specifically prosecuted for a “guerilla performance” in Moscow’s main cathedral of its Orthodox Church in which the women engaged in a “punk prayer” (involving singing, high kicking, and dancing) pointing out the Church’s abuse of power in Russia and support of controversial leader Vladimir Putin. Many view the court ruling and sentence as another example of the Putin regime’s intolerance for disagreement with the Russian government. After the sentencing there were hundreds of supporters protesting the sentencing of the band members.
Conversely, the Orthodox Church in Russia and some of its members, whose testimony was cited in the prosecution of the three women, viewed the actions of the women as extremely offensive and disrespectful. Some went as far as stating that the actions of the women demonstrated their hatred for the Orthodox religion.
This instance describes a case that is alarming to those of us with much greater freedoms of expression, particularly because the women were sentenced under a nonexistent criminal law theory and the punishment seems unwarranted and extreme at the least. However, the situation highlights a few interesting concepts that continue to be explored in the government and laws of various nations: the balance between censorship and oppression, freedom of expression and offensive expression, as well as tolerance and hatred. To what degree should governments be allowed to censor its citizens? At what point does it become oppressive? Russia’s degree of censorship seems excessive to those of us in the United States, but other nations view the United States’ censorship of certain drugs and images as excessive as well. (i.e. marijuana restrictions and overly suggestive advertising).
How about the dynamic between freedom of expression and offensive expression? Should people be given complete freedom to express themselves at any venue in any manner they want? Despite the clearly excessive charges against the Russian band, would American society approve of this behavior in religious institutions (regardless of perceived government influence)? When does freedom of expression “cross the line”? How can society more effectively and appropriately deter expression that does in fact “cross the line”?
For more on the Russian prison sentence click here.