Free speech imperative

Mike Siciliano

As protests in the Middle East continue over the Danish caricatures of Islamic prophet Muhammad, several denunciations are making their way into politics and more importantly, the media.

Recently, several college newspapers have reprinted some of the 12 original caricatures, or drawn cartoons of their own to make fun of the situation. These include but are not limited to the Harvard Salient, the Arizona Daily Wildcat, the Daily Illini, the Northern Star, the Communicator and the Daily Tar Heel.

“Insulting,” “offensive,” “mean-spirited” and “blasphemous” are just a few of the terms used to attack the decision of several newspaper editors to reprint the cartoons.

Critics of the caricatures share one common trait: hostility towards freedom of speech and everything it encompasses.

It was a sad day last year when the University of Connecticut released the results of its first amendment survey showing that more than one in three high school students believed the protections of First Amendment rights go too far.

However, this year proves to be even sadder in comparison, because adults, many possessing college educations, have denounced an action tantamount to free expression. Much like the naive minors of this nation, it appears that adults too believe free speech can go too far.

Critics argue that it is not a matter of free speech, but a matter of taste. This argument is nothing more than a ploy. There is no exception to free speech based on taste, offensiveness, indecency, or any other subjective term used to suppress disagreeable statements.

The First Amendment protects all speech regardless of whether or not others will like it. Tolerance is not a barometer for the acceptance of differing viewpoints.

Critics also argue that the caricatures are against Islamic law. This point is irrelevant. The United States as a secular nation retains a separation of church and state for an important reason: freedom or religion. The right to choose one, several, or no religions can only be upheld when the government is not run by any religion. Islamic law is not U.S. law, nor will any religious law ever be.

The attacks against Denmark and other nations are nothing more than a ruse to distract people from the past actions of state-run newspapers in the Middle East. Al-Yawn, a newspaper in Saudi Arabia, ran a drawing of a swastika superimposed over the Star of David, and al-Ahram, a newspaper in Egypt, ran a caricature of Jews killing children and drinking their blood. It’s funny how the American media didn’t pick up on that.

Critics argue as a final point that is was wrong to run the caricatures. Right and wrong have nothing to do with free speech. When Hustler magazine ran a caricature depicting Jerry Falwell having drunken incestuous sex with his own mother, the disgruntled Rev. Falwell argued that the depiction was so outrageous that it could not be compared to traditional political cartoons. The Supreme Court rejected this claim.

Said the Court, “[T]he fact that society may find speech offensive is not a sufficient reason for suppressing it. Indeed, if it is the speaker’s opinion that gives offense, that consequence is a reason for according it constitutional protection. For it is a central tenet of the First Amendment that the government must remain neutral in the marketplace of ideas.”

Caricatures have an important place in American politics and history. To further quote the Supreme Court: “Despite their sometimes caustic nature, from the early cartoon portraying George Washington as an ass down to the present day, graphic depictions and satirical cartoons have played a prominent role in public and political debate? From the viewpoint of history it is clear that our political discourse would have been considerably poorer without them.”

Perhaps America has forgotten the true meaning of free speech as a result of multiple decades of allowing the FCC to censor broadcast television and radio on the mere basis of indecency.

But something needs to be done to reinstate belief in the protections of the First Amendment.

No person, dead or alive, is free from criticism. There are no boundaries based on taste and nothing short of libel can stop a harsh verbal attack directed at another.

Nothing outweighs freedom of speech.It is sad that many news organizations have decided not to run images of the cartoons, but it is truly deplorable that former icons of free speech such as the New York Times and the Washington Post were coerced into capitulation based on fear.

Perhaps they’re not too afraid to run a cartoon of a cowering editor bowing to the threats of Islamic extremists, but then again, I may be wrong.

How about just a simple scoreboard in tomorrow’s paper to illustrate the situation? The tally: political correctness: 1, free speech: 0.

Mike Siciliano can be reached at