As most of you know, last week in Garland, TX, a self-proclaimed "Free Speech Event" was interrupted by gunfire. Two jihadists from Arizona, Eldon Simpson and Nadir Soofi, drove all the way across New Mexico and Texas to this quiet suburb of Dallas about an hour from my home. Once they arrived, they got out of their car shooting, trying to get to the event that had drawn their ire and kill as many participants as possible. But, this is Texas, and the event had heavy security in place. Despite their body armor and assault rifles, the would-be terrorists were shot dead almost instantly, after injuring only one security guard. The attendees at the event were oblivious to the attack until after both terrorists lay dead.
So what was this event that was so inflammatory that these two men drove hundreds of miles determined to kill those who were attending it? It was an art contest, sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, which challenged participants to draw the best possible cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. Depicting Muhammad is a blatant sacrilege to all Muslims, one of the most offensive things imaginable. In Europe, cartoonists have been killed for such depictions, most recently in Paris at the satirical magazine "Charlie Hebdo." This raises an interesting question: Was this event an example of "hate speech"? And if so, should such exhibitions, clearly designed to offend, be illegal?
One of my friends thinks they should. Or, as he put it, the event's organizer should "bear some legal responsibility." The logic is simple: This event was clearly designed to offend Muslims, and two Muslims were offended enough that they were ready to kill everyone there. Now they are dead, and the event organizer should be held to blame, at least to some extent.
Here is the paradox: I agree that the event was designed to offend. But, at the same time, I am against ANY restriction on free speech. To make it illegal for anyone to defame the Muslim's Prophet is to basically proclaim that Muslims cannot be expected to endure offensive speech without acting out violently. In short, it would label every Muslim a potential terrorist.
There are tens of thousands of Muslims, many of them very devout, who live in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Not one of them tried to shoot up this meeting.
My friend, a former Christian, tried to put it this way: "Say someone put up a billboard of Jesus [I won't repeat his description of the offensive depiction save to say it involved a sex act during the crucifixion] outside a church here in the South. You and I both know someone would probably get a gun and go after the artist!"
Really? In the 1990's the National Endowment for the Arts repeatedly funded "artworks" that were clearly designed to offend Christians. One featured a crucifix submerged in a jar of human urine. The play "Corpus Christi" depicts Jesus and his disciples as promiscuous homosexuals. The artist and the playwright in question are both still alive and kicking, probably still receiving government grants. The musical "the Book of Mormon" has won multiple awards and drawn huge crowds by bashing Mormonism for two hours straight. How did the LDS church respond? By taking out an ad in the program that says: "You've seen the play, now READ THE BOOK!" They haven't shot up a single theater. Also, this event wasn't held at or near a mosque, so the comparison is not exactly apples to apples to begin with.
But even if it was, the fact is that, free speech is and SHOULD BE just that. Free. Freedom of expression means some people will do things you do not like - things that are grossly offensive to you. Labeling things as "hate speech" and then trying to criminalize them jeopardizes the liberty of EVERY American citizen. As the Supreme Court has pointed out in multiple rulings, popular speech doesn't NEED constitutional protection, because it's, well, popular. Unless the most vile and hateful forms of expression can be freely uttered, then we no longer have free speech in this country.
I wouldn't go to this kind of event, nor would I support it. I have no desire to deliberately offend another person's faith, any more than I wish to see mine offended. But I support the freedom of offensive people to be offensive, because that is the very nature of freedom of expression. Most American Muslims understand that, and simply ignore things like the Muhammad Cartoon Contest. Those who can't should, perhaps, emigrate to the birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia. Or perhaps to the latest stronghold of Islamist paranoia, ISIS. There is no freedom of speech in those places.
Or freedom of religion. Or the press. Or women's rights. Or gay rights. Or rights for anyone who does not ascribe to their fundamentalist view of the Quran.
Do we really want American to move in that direction?