As an American there are few ideals to which I cling more tightly than the right to freedom of speech. However, this ability to theoretically say whatever I may feel and believe has raised difficult questions in recent months, through the actions of groups organising events in Texas and Arizona at which participants drew cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. There were two fatalities as an outgrowth of the Texas gathering. Pamela Geller, a Long Island housewife and blogger, led the crusade to see the contest come to fruition in Garland, Texas, and after police fatally shot suspected terrorists Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, Geller used the opportunity to promote how “the enemies of freedom…were crushed”.1 While Ms. Geller attempts to wave the banners of freedom and democracy through her actions, what she is truly doing is inciting the radical fringe to commit the very crimes that define those individuals as the fringe. Moderate Muslims, people Ms. Geller claims to feel no resent for, are not the individuals who will bring assault rifles to a cartoon contest. There is the nobility of defending freedom of speech, but with such liberty comes responsibility, and the two are concurrent in their existence.
The Truth about Freedom
One of the most frustrating aspects of this debate for me is the gross misuse of what the First Amendment actually states. Nowhere in the United States Constitution does it say that people are free to say and do whatever they want. Rather, the First Amendment, like much of the Bill of Rights, acts not to grant limitless freedoms to citizens, but rather to restrict the power of the Federal government. The Amendment formally reads as follows:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Congress may not ‘abridge’ freedom of speech, but citizens cannot legally use language that may create situations of chaos or violence. In actuality, this amendment exists to both protect the people from a tyrannical government, but also to protect Americans from themselves. Unbridled freedoms lead to anarchy, and idealistic insistence that the cancellation of an event like the ‘draw Muhammad’ contest is somehow caving in to the pressures of political sensitivity – or worse yet – the militant components of radical Islam, are just naïve and juvenile. Freedom comes with responsibility and responsibility is steeped in common sense. The most obvious example was meted out by Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1919 in Schenck v. United States, in which Holmes famously asserted that, in terms of how far one can expand the definition of Free speech, one must be aware of how ‘words are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.’2 This case grew out of the American government’s limits on personal expression during World War One, and upheld Charles Schenck’s conviction that his pamphlets to recruited men that condemned the use of a draft as an overreach of the government’s authority was illegal given the circumstances of war. Holmes was not condemning Schenck for what he said, but the conditions in which they were said.3 The act of drawing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad is not itself offensive, and should be a protected act, whether done by a political cartoonist in a newspaper, a blog, or even in the pages of satirical works like Charlie Hebdo or America’s long-running Mad magazine. I fully support the belief that freedom of speech must be protected, but it cannot become a politicised topic to blanket hate.
The Debate of Right vs. Correct
Attacking Islam will not cure the world of violent radicals, but may rather give a justification to those who are lost to engage in violence. As a global society, our efforts should be directed towards education and the prevention of future terror rather than stoking the flames of an already virulent fire. Fear, resentment, and hatred of extremism are emotions shared by people around the world of all faiths and creeds, and too often politicians and those in the media – whether falling into a ‘mainstream’ category or not – are too quick to label entire groups with one moniker in an effort to simplify a story into an easily digestible sound bite. That is what happened with the ‘Draw Mohammad’ controversy, except that an event in Texas left two men dead and a community shaken. The quick reaction and bravery of the Garland police must be celebrated, but there was truly no reason as to why those individuals had to have their lives placed at risk in the name of misrepresented patriotism. I am not going to debate the role of Pamela Geller, but when she says that ‘freedom of speech is under violent assault’ in America, she is simply incorrect.4 America has a long history of upholding free speech from groups that most find detestable. Both the Ku Klux Klan and Westboro Baptist Church are free to spew their vitriolic ignorance, but Westboro members cannot do so at military funerals.5 Once again, the right to be confrontational through words and actions is protected, but the location is limited. Individuals do not have to curb their emotions and opinions, but are asked to be respectful of where they express themselves. I do not find that too much to ask.
I do not take for granted the privilege and good fortune I have to live in a free nation, but I also want to live in a civilised nation. Looking for controversy does not make one a hero or freedom fighter. Instead, those opposed to tyranny and repression must speak out as unified voices against barbarism and cruelty and do so with the understanding that that the individuals who indulge is such horrors are always a minority and not reflective of an entire population. Honouring freedom of speech does not mean insulting the beliefs of others; rather, what truly makes free speech so valuable is that it allows for intelligent and passionate discourse to take place. Sadly, those qualities are the ideals that I believe to be truly disappearing from society.
1 Alan Feuer, “Pamela Geller, Organizer of Muhammad Cartoon Contest, Trumpets Results”. Nytimes.com, 5/4/2015.
4 Alan Feuer, “Pamela Geller, Organizer of Muhammad Cartoon Contest, Trumpets Results”. Nytimes.com, 5/4/2015.
5 Nick Wing, Westboro Baptist Church Smacked Down By Federal Judge In Lawsuit Against Missouri County. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/22/westboro-baptist-church-lawsuit_n_3797425.html.