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Free Speech, Absolutely

February 4, 2006. Islam prohibits representations of Muhammad or Allah. Muslims expect non-Muslims to respect this prohibition. To do otherwise is blasphemy in their eyes and disrespectful. When the Prophet or Allah is disrespected, some Muslims believe they are justified in killing the disrespectful ones. Today, some Muslims are burning flags and embassies in various countries to protest a series of cartoons [Note: I link to this site so those who wish to do so may view the cartoons, not because I agree with the commentary.] that ran in Danish newspapers and were reprinted in other European papers. In some places, Muslims are calling for the death of those responsible for the cartoons and shouting "God is great" as they set fires and throw rocks through windows.

As bad as the violence and attempted intimidation of those who don't respect their religion is, some consider it much worse that the Roman Catholic Church and some Western governments condemn the publication of the images. "The right to freedom of thought and expression . . . cannot entail the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers," the Vatican said. Some might ask, "What kind of freedom of expression is it that must stop when it becomes offensive? What kind of freedom of speech is it that is allowed only as long as it does not outrage anyone? Why should religious sentiments be protected?"

A Sacramento Muslim, originally from Pakistan, put it this way: "Muslims value freedom of speech, no doubt. But freedom of speech comes with responsibility."* Yes, but some might think that it is not irresponsible to express your opinions about religious figures, even if what you say and how you say it outrages members of a particular religion. To some people, freedom of speech should be absolute. To them, irresponsibility does not and should not refer to the content of speech. Nor does it nor should it refer to the manner of speech. Responsibility in speech should pay deference to place and time, of course. No one has the right to walk into your churches and start lecturing on natural selection. No one has the right to go to your mosques and proclaim that Muhammad was a thief. No one has the right to draw cartoons on your church, synagogue, or mosque walls. I have no right to approach you on the street or in your place of worship and try to provoke you with vile speech about your savior, your prophets, or your gods. On the other hand, the absolutists argue that anybody should be free to publish cartoons in a newspaper no matter what their content and no matter who is offended by them. The response of the Vatican and those governments who want to censor speech that will rile up Muslims to violence is cowardly and a bad precedent. It tells everybody that you are free to say what you want except when what you say drives some group to violent crimes against persons and property.

Imagine what kind of future you will have if you kowtow to fear. Muslims have every right to be offended by whatever they want to be offended by, the argument goes. They have every right to express their contrary opinions to whatever words or pictures outrage them. But they have no right to kill people who outrage them by their speech. They have no right to order others to kill those who offend them by their speech. They have no right to burn down buildings because they are outraged by speech they consider blasphemous. Of course that's true, but do they have a right to expect non-Muslims to be respectful of their Prophet and their God?

 Photo Credit: By Khaled Al-hariri -- Reuters Photo

In the U.S., citizens have the right to desecrate the flag as a form of political speech. Muslims desecrate the American flag every day by burning it to protest U.S. foreign policies. Some Muslims desecrated the Danish flag to protest the publication of the cartoons in the Danish newspaper. (Never mind that the Danish government had nothing to do with the publication of the cartoons. They allow such things to be published, and so are equally guilty, it might be argued.) Many things are considered sacred as symbols and many ideas are taboo to certain groups, but when governments start censoring speech because it provokes a violent reaction on the part of some group then that government is telling the world that it can be intimidated into action or inaction regardless of its laws or traditions.

I agree that it is bad precedent for a government to be intimidated by threats of civil disorder and violence against persons and property as the only reason it is willing to allow or disallow some behavior or speech. But I don't think it is obvious that any freedom should be absolute, including freedom of speech. Philosophically, there is the practical problem of some clever opponent always being able to come up with some imaginary example that makes it look foolish to adhere to some principle no matter what the consequences. Politically, there is the practical problem that most societies cherish several values and they often conflict, requiring one to be subordinate to the other in certain situations. For example, in the U.S. we have a constitutional tradition of valuing liberty and equality. Until the late twentieth century when equality conflicted with liberty, equality was usually given the lower priority. Now, we have laws and precedents that forbid speech in the workplace that is racist or sexist. When the First Amendment was passed, every state had laws against blasphemy, conspiracy, libel, and slander. Soon after the First Amendment was ratified, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made it illegal to, among other things, criticize the President. The Fourteenth Amendment has been interpreted to prohibit states and local governments from doing what Congress is forbidden to do by the First Amendment. As far as I know, there has never been a legal case in U.S. history where libel or slander or conspiracy to commit a crime or incite others to commit crimes has been successfully defended by arguing that the Constitution forbids laws "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."

To me, the question is where we should draw the line regarding freedom of speech and the press, not whether we should have such a line at all. I have not seen a convincing defense for absolute freedom of speech. The answer to the question regarding where to draw the line depends on what our goals are, what we hope to accomplish by our laws. I take it for granted that those goals change over time and are going to conflict sometimes. Decisions are going to have to be made where one purpose is considered more important than another. I also take it for granted that when clashes occur, which value should trump the other is not something we can predict with absolute certainty because we cannot predict what all the circumstances will be that must be taken into account when we decide whether, for example, liberty should trump equality or vice-versa in a given case.

Some think that the main goal of civil society is to bring about the greatest amount of happiness. Such a society is likely to cherish both liberty and equality as necessary to achieve its goal. Others think the only goal is to get its members to heaven or to make sure they obey God's laws. Such societies might not value either equality or free speech at all because happiness on earth is irrelevant to its purposes. Before we start demanding a right to a certain kind of speech, we should consider what the overall goal of having rights and protection of rights is.

Some might like to recall the words of John Stuart Mill, who wrote in On Liberty:

...if it were necessary to choose, there would be much more need to discourage offensive attacks on infidelity, than on religion. It is, however, obvious that law and authority have no business with restraining either....*

Times change, however, and while I agree that usually we will have more need to discourage offensive attacks on atheism and infidelity than on religion, I don't take it as obvious that the law has no business restraining speech against either. There was a time not long ago in the U.S. when an atheist (infidel) was considered fair game for whatever vituperative speech anyone, including public officials, wished to use against us. President George H. W. Bush wasn't sure we should even be considered citizens and he expressly denied that we could be patriots.* Today in our country there is so much anger at Muslims for what Islamic terrorists have done here and around the globe to non-combatant, innocent civilians, that any vituperative speech or insulting action against a Muslim is unlikely to arouse much sympathy from members of the dominant religion, Christianity, or from atheists. But if speech should be unrestrained against Islam, it should be unrestrained against Christianity as well. Yet, when mayor Rudolph Giuliani found some art in a museum to be "sick" and "disgusting" because of how it treated the "Holy Virgin Mary," he closed the museum with the support of many citizens who were also disgusted by the use of elephant dung in the art.* When Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ photograph was displayed—a photo of a crucifix submerged in a jar of blood and urine—it evoked a strong reaction and many were calling for banning or destroying the "blasphemous" art.* Maybe such art should not be banned but it is not self-evident that there should never be any censorship of any art at any time. If one argues that such art should be banned, then, to be consistent, one should also argue that the Danish cartoons of Muhammad should also be banned.

There is also the complicating factor in the case of the cartoons that they are published in one country but they evoke a violent reaction in several other countries. Does it matter that other kinds of speech also found offensive and outrageous to most Muslims, e.g., pornography, when published around the world do not evoke threats of violence and destruction? Do we have any obligation to weigh the benefits of permitting speech some religious group considers blasphemous against the potential harm such speech might cause? If so, is it self-evident that the benefits outweigh the costs? I don't think so.

Some might look at the recommendations of the Vatican and those governments who think that free speech should not include speech that criticizes or offends "religious sentiments" and ask: Why stop there? Why not prohibit speech that is critical of the government or government officials? Why not forbid speech that demonizes morally upright atheists? Those seem to me fair questions—as is the question regarding limits of speech about religions or other sacred symbols—and we might learn a lot about ourselves and our society by discussing them openly and arguing for whatever position we think is the one our country should strive to uphold.

If there are any absolutes, the principle that rational beings should be free to discuss such issues seems to be one of them.

further reading

BBC Dilemma Over Cartoons

Reconsidering the Rushdie Affair: Freedom, censorship and American foreign policy (1992) by Richard Webster

Naked Christs and Balaam's Ass A blueprint toward a renewed Christian aesthetic by Joshua S. Anderson

BBC: Muhammad cartoons 'global crisis'

World figures deplore cartoon row

South Asia
Middle East
Unrelated but of interest

European embassies ablaze as Muslims around the world express their outrage at newspaper cartoons

Last updated 12/09/10

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