editorial (2006-08)

’Toon War

And other assaults on speech and press freedoms

’Toon War

Free speech and a free press are under attack from multiple fronts at a time in history when they seem most needed. The underlying principle of each is just what it says it is: freedom. Yet people are dying and living under threats of dismemberment, death or imprisonment for their spoken or printed expressions in disparate quarters all around our world.

Worse, people are becoming reluctant to express themselves with any representations of their opinions if they fear retaliation from religious or secular interests that might label their expressions blasphemous or illegal.

The thought police are arriving in droves. The right to be wrong—fundamental to all of our formerly sacred freedoms—is under worldwide challenge. That police presence is, indeed, the scary feature of that challenge.

The highest profile struggle right now is the publication of cartoons that depict the Prophet Muhammad in unflattering ways. You have to feel sorry for the editor in Denmark whose initial response to threats of mayhem over the cartoons, which originated there, was a simple defense of the freedom to publish: “You can’t buy into other people’s religious taboos,” he said.

He is right, but he didn’t anticipate the depth of the protest, including the deaths of about 50 people in countries where Islam is a prevalent religion and boycotts of Danish goods and the firebombing of that nation’s embassies abroad. Now, he and his cartoonists are in hiding.

The situation cries out for a condemnation of all forms of violent religiosity, beyond the political ramifications of any religion’s influence over any group of people. The Islamic position on the Prophet is clear: He proscribed any depiction of his person in any form, making a righteous demand that he not become the focus of a cult of personality. That’s an admirable wish, but it should apply to Muslims, not non-Muslims. What Muslims do hold in this respect is the right to gather and protest, to rail verbally or in print, even to institute boycotts against governments and their peoples who may have had no part in nor sympathy for the offending material. But the offended have no right to maim or kill or destroy.

This is not a matter of religion or of taste, really. The right to blaspheme is a human right.

To those religious believers who adhere to the concept that humans go on to their eternal rewards, great or not so great, that should be enough. Preying upon people on Earth for their supposed infidelities or indiscretions is a kind of active blasphemy against the human race.

In another sector, an Austrian court has just sentenced an English historian to three years in prison on his conviction there of violating an Austrian law against denying or minimizing the Holocaust. He had made a speech in Vienna years ago that, the court said, broke the law. He deserved punishment, the judge ruled, even though he had later repudiated his former opinion and told the court that he had changed his mind. That is an unconscionable application of an undue restriction of free speech. What were the Austrians thinking when they established such a reprehensible law?

Free expression suffers insufferably under such restrictive laws, whether they are based on fact, religious belief, or majority opinion. Truth or consequences is not an issue to be judged by humans when no actual harm is done to others by false belief and the expression of that belief. The result of such judgments is tyranny, pure and simple. The only reasonable and proper test for the exercise of free speech or free expression, or religious freedom or freedom of assembly is whether it produces actual harm to others, to their persons or property.

There is enough to worry about in our own American culture on the subject of religious freedom, freedoms of speech and expression and assembly, all of which are interrelated and dependent on one another. A woman is escorted from the halls of our own Congress for wearing a T-shirt bearing a message decrying U.S. deaths in the war in Iraq; churches are burned in Alabama; in neighboring Mexico’s Roman Catholic-dominated society, evangelizing Protestants are bulldozed out.

We, in the U.S. media, are speaking out against and publishing accounts of these troubling developments, and we will continue to do so. The purported or imagined justifications behind them are ugly and, while the acts themselves are damaging to our ideas of free expression, they should have no negative effect on the open exercise of those ideas.

At Metro Pulse , we did not publish the cartoons that offended much of the Muslim world, and we have no intention to do so, but we did not think they should have incited violence anywhere in any form.

We don’t routinely republish the unsolicited works of others, especially those that we consider irrelevant to our readers. But we don’t respect the decisions of any of the publishers who have fired editors for republishing those lampooning cartoons. The chilling effect such firings may have on a free press is, well, chilling.

Look at the current attempts at repression of free speech as the equivalent—in reverse—of the proverbial cry of “fire” in a crowded theater. Free expression itself is endangered by the threat of censorship or the specter of self-censorship. We, who believe in freedom, should be looking for ways to unite to put out that incipient flame of repression before it spreads out of control.