(/sites/default/files/uploads/2012/09/o-CHARLIE-HEBDO-570.gif)France is now facing the prospect of a violent backlash following the publication of controversial Prophet Mohammed cartoons by the satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo showing the Prophet Mohammed naked. Trying to head off a firestorm not only in the Muslim world but also within the large Muslim population living in France, French officials condemned the publication. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, for example, said that while he respects the right of free expression he sees “no point in such a provocation.”
Mindful of the violence against U.S. embassies and consulates which has swept the Muslim world in the wake of the anti-Muslim video produced in the United States, the French government is taking no chances. It will close twenty of its embassies in Muslim countries this Friday, in case the Friday prayers turn into an orgy of violence whipped up by fanatical imams.
The French magazine’s editor, Stephane Charbonnier, told reporters that the pictures will “shock those who will want to be shocked.“ He is deliberately poking a stick at a rattlesnake, not worried about the venomous consequences that will inevitably ensue. He should be worried in light of the fact that the Paris offices of his magazine were firebombed last year after it lampooned the Prophet Mohammed on its front page.
However, the increasing calls for restrictions on free speech as a result of such offensive cartoons or videos are far more offensive than the speech itself. To be sure, there are limits. Speech that clearly crosses over the line from permissible provocative expression to direct incitement to imminent violence can be restricted. But the exceptions to the inalienable right of individuals in a free society to express their point of view, no matter how offensive, must not be allowed to swallow the right itself. Emotional pain or hurt feelings are too subjective a standard to use in regulating speech.
No group can become the arbiter of what is or what is not acceptable speech based on whether it hurts their feelings or shows disrespect for their faith and beliefs. Their threat of violence if they don’t get their way would give them a “heckler’s veto.” Instead, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis advised, in one of his famous opinions back in 1927, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
The real danger coming out of the recent episodes of Prophet Mohammed caricatures is to give the Islamists more ammunition in their campaign to clamp down on speech they claim “defames” their religion and constitutes Islamophobia. They demand tolerance and respect for Islam, but in many countries with Muslim majorities there is no tolerance or respect for other faiths. In some cases, churches, synagogues, Hindu temples etc. cannot even operate openly.
Nevertheless, the Obama administration has already succumbed to the Islamists’ pressure against free speech which offends them with its craven apologies and refusal to use jihad, Islamists and terrorism in the same sentence. Meanwhile, this administration had no compunction in thumbing its nose at devout Catholics by forcing Catholic institutions to pay for contraception and abortion-inducing drugs in violation of their core religious beliefs.
As I previously wrote, the Obama administration tried to have inserted into a press statement, issued September 12th by the UN Security Council on the “Attacks against U.S. Diplomatic Personnel” in Libya, language against the denigration of religions. France, which does not even have legal protections of free speech as strong as our First Amendment and is now facing its own test of resolve against Islamist blowbacks to the satirical magazine caricatures, thankfully blocked this incredibly craven proposal from seeing the light of day.
When Obama visits the United Nations next week to deliver his annual bow to “world opinion” he will find a global consensus in the General Assembly compatible with the Islamists’ and his own worldview, but which is against America’s traditional notion of freedom of expression. In his press conference on September 19th in advance of next week’s love fest, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon displayed this consensus:
Freedom of expression should be and must be guaranteed and protected, when they are used for common justice, common purpose. When some people use this freedom of expression to provoke or humiliate some others’ values and beliefs, then this cannot be protected in such a way. So my position is that freedom of expression, while it is a fundamental right and privilege, should not be abused by such people, by such a disgraceful and shameful act.
The First Amendment does not confine the protection of free speech to cases when it is “used for common justice, common purpose.” Freedom of speech is an inalienable individual right. Once the collective begins to curb this right in the service of some “common purpose” or sense of “common justice,” all of our freedoms are in jeopardy. As George Washington said:
“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
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