Curtailing First Amendment A Slippery Slope


Writing a column defending freedom of speech should be the easiest thing in the world. But these days, the issue gets complicated. When The New York Times condemns an exhibit as being beyond what can be defended, we should all be alarmed.

The exhibit in question, shown in Garland, Texas, contained a “Drawing Mohammed” contest. Although only Muslims are prohibited from drawing images of the prophet, many Muslims are offended when the basic purpose is to remind the rest of us that people have been murdered for doing the drawing. And some folks argue that what Pam Geller, who staged the contest, has done is not free speech but “hate speech,” not covered by the First Amendment.

There actually is no “hate speech” clause in the Bill of Rights. But George Orwell, the great writer and political philosopher, noted in his masterpiece 1984 that by defining terms that might be subversive and dangerous to those in power and then forbidding them, there is an effective way to mute criticism.

And we see that today. Some speakers are not allowed on college campuses because they are pro-life or because they think that those accused of sexual assault should have the same legal protections as the average drug dealer. There are a long list of quibbles and, unfortunately, a large number of college administrators who assume their students should be protected from opinions other than those of the faculty. On many college campuses, there are small “free speech” areas set aside for those whose ideas do not match those of the lead activists. Of course, these same administrators ignore the idea that the whole country is supposed to have free speech.

The problem in defining hate speech is that it is, by its very nature, totally subjective. What the administration of President Barack Obama deems hateful might be the very basis of the administration of President Ted Cruz. The activists demanding cutbacks on some free speech now might discover that they become voiceless later.

Even more spectacularly, there is a lot of hypocrisy involved. The same newspaper that damned Geller for insulting Islam, mocked then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani for objecting to a piece of art that depicted Jesus using a pile of animal manure. There was no concern at all about the feelings of Christians. The Associated Press, which at one point was known for trying to be “right down the middle objective” about news, first tweeted that the exhibit was responsible for the two deaths of the gunmen who tried to wipe it out, and then corrected itself by writing that Geller has no regrets about doing the exhibit. And it seems few people want to point out that many Muslims often make nasty comments about Jews.

Yes, Geller went out of her way to offend. That is where the First Amendment has its greatest glory, when it stretches the limits. The mocking of our leaders by comedians on television is generally mild, although there are certainly people who argue that there are some people and groups treated far more harshly than others.

A generation ago, Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler, was targeted by the government because his depictions of naked women were so anti-female as to seem disgusting to all but those who really enjoyed looking at pictures of the denigration of woman. The same cultural leadership that honored him at numerous awards dinners now condemns a woman who speaks out against a group of people who kill those who offend them. A group of writers from PEN, an organization dedicated to honoring writers victimized by totalitarian governments, refused to honor the cartoonists from Charlie Hebdo, murdered because they had offended Muslims.

Voltaire wrote several hundred years ago that “while I detest what you wrote, I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The new slogan seems to be that “since I detest what you wrote, I will shut you up while expecting you to defend to the death my right to say whatever I want, even if it offends you.” That is a great recipe for disaster. Perhaps the new slogan should be, “Only those who really defend free speech, deserve to have theirs defended,” although not defending the undeserving would violate our own rights.

See what I mean when I say it is not easy to come up with a good answer?