Tuesday, May 05, 2015

The Cost of Free Speech


When I was young, in elementary school one of the most memorable lessons was given to me by my teacher instructing us to always ask questions. I was told, in school, I could ask any question I wanted to ask about most anything. I remember thinking, even at that young age, how wonderful it was to live in a country that not only tolerated questioning but actually encouraged it.

Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes though said of free speech that it does not mean "you can yell fire in a crowded theater." He went on to write in Scheneck v. United States "The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent." Clearly, there are many aspects to the concept of free speech that place limits on its use.

The question, though, in pertinent part before us, concerns right wing zealot Pamela Geller's cartoon exhibit of the Prophet Mohammed at a venue in Texas. Geller is a woman who has the dubious distinction of earning a place on the SPLC hate list because of her virulently absurd hate speech against Muslims and Islam. Is it permissible to allow her to convene a group in Texas specifically designed to be the most toxic insult to many Muslims by creating a contest dedicated to drawing a cartoon of their revered and sacred Prophet Mohammed?

Ms. Geller knew well that the contest could and indeed did provoke not only controversy but violence. One security guard was wounded and two assailants killed. Even more mayhem could easily have occurred to the visitors of the “exhibit” if the security guard did not perform his job well. Her group paid $10,000 for that security which says something about what she knew could happen.

Does the reverence our nation holds for free speech, the first freedom in our Constitutional hierarchy and the foundation upon which all other freedoms rest outweigh the danger that Geller posed to those who attended the event and also to those who secured it? Is this the cost of free speech we must pay?

The oft quoted phrase of the philosopher Voltaire provides, I think, the answer. "I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Even though Geller is a person with whom I do not agree, and even though she is listed as a hate group by the SPLC, and even though the convocation of her event could pose a danger, I believe her right to political free speech trumps all of that no matter how offensive that speech may be to some. In politics and religion, too, what is revered by one is rejected by another. All speakers must gain a forum to espouse their views hoping that what will emerge is a sifting of thought, rejection of the most extreme ideas and a gravitation toward moderation by the majority.

The west fought mercilessly over religion for centuries. Our Founders fought to remove it from the egis of the newly created nation-state to keep religion out of the purview of government mandate specifically to avoid wars that religion uncompromising and extreme engenders.

Because of our Founders sagacity, I freely watched, in my youth, numbers of religious films. I was particularly fond of movies about the life of Christ and watched many from Max Von Sydow's “Greatest Story Ever Told” to Mel Gibson’s brutal rather anti-Semitic depiction of “The Passion of the Christ.” I saw the film "Last Temptation of Christ" which engendered some Christian controversy and there were, of course, protesting picketers outside the theater but they did not shoot me in line nor did they burn the theater down for showing it.

I have often, even before I knew it was verboten, possessed a yearning to see in film the historical growth of Islam, the Koran and, yes, even what Islam’s Prophet looked like. He was after all a human being who lived in the 4th century. One would think there would be some depiction of the Prophet but there is nothing I could see even if someone possessed it as they or I would be killed for having it.

I do not fear Muslims or the Islamic faith but I do fear the mixing of religious tenets with the prohibitive mandate of the state. Church/state amalgamation chills me as does man's stifling of his own intellectual creativity and natural inquisitiveness that makes him uniquely human, allows our species to evolutionarily improve and, indeed, helps us survive.

Yelling “fire” in a crowded theater is unacceptable but all other speech should be. Whether Nazis march in Jewish-populated Skokie, the art of the Sistine Chapel’s depicting God, Mapplethorpe’s controversial sculpture of Christ nothing should be verboten to see, hear or discuss. It is how we learn.

The third of the greatest monotheistic faiths, Islam, revealing to the world a mind’s eye depiction of its revered Prophet, should not be prohibited by ISIS or any other group that thinks there is no other truth but their own. I wonder what the Prophet looked like even if it is in the mind's eye of man. No one should be killed for that!