Free speech in America: Not so absolute

May, 2015   

The funny thing about absolutes is that sometimes they’re not. A recent competition that invited Americans to submit cartoons of the prophet Mohammed is illustrative.

Organized by a woman whose attacks on the Muslim community have generated much publicity across the United States, the competition had two purposes, one explicit, one implicit.

The stated purpose was to demonstrate that in the United States speech is free, and that Americans can do or say whatever they want.

The unstated purpose was to provoke a violent response against the contest and to help the contest organizer, a New Yorker by the name of Pam Geller, promote her racism and bigotry.

As a demonstration of free speech, the contest succeeded.

As a provocation, it only partially succeeded.

While more than 100,000 Muslims reside in the unlucky Texan geography selected by Geller to host her competition, the Dallas – Fort Worth metropolitan area, not one of them showed up to protest the event, and more than a few were openly supportive of Geller’s contest, noting that while they did object to what she was doing, it was her right to do so under the American Constitution.

But while the Muslims of the immediate area seemed rather bored by the whole thing, two radical extremists from Phoenix decided they wanted to be jihadis-for-a-day and showed up at the event armed to the teeth. But before the two could harm anyone inside the convention centre in which the event was being held, they were shot dead by a police officer who had been hired to work extra security.

This provided a momentary field day for Geller, who made the obligatory appearances on national television to condemn Muslims and Islam, and said the aborted attack was an example of why all Muslims are basically savages. It was a profession that ignored the fact that 100,000 Muslims in the immediate vicinity didn’t respond to her bait at all.

But then a strange thing happened. People started to turn on Geller and the entire contest. While almost everyone said she had the right to do what she wanted to do, and say what she wanted to say, people from across the American political spectrum began to question her wisdom and motivation in holding the event in the first place.

Well-known conservatives in the media and in Congress questioned Geller’s motivations. Donald Trump called her an “obnoxious” blowhard. A Conservative publication, The Week, called the contest a “big flat flop.” And the local mayor in whose city the event occurred accused Geller of knowingly putting his police officers in danger.

Geller, of course, reacted to this lack of support by comparing herself to a rape victim who is basically accused of asking for it. This tactic also didn’t do much to enhance her reputation.

Since is read by people around the world, allow me a paragraph or two to explain a little bit about the First Amendment to the United States Consitution. Most people know it as the amendment that guarantees free speech.

It’s more complicated than that. While the First Amendment does give Americans the freedom to say whatever they want, including the kind of hateful things parroted by Geller and her ilk, it does not protect them from the consequences of saying those things.

The First Amendment only guarantees that you won’t be thrown into jail for criticizing the government or public officials. So an American who calls a next-door neighbour who is not a public figure a pedophile, and he is not one, can be be sued for all of his or her earthly belongings.

And here’s another thing about the First Amendment. As free as free speech may be, there are some things that are by and large considered not OK to say publicly. The “N” word is one example. It’s not that you’re not allowed to say it, it’s just that it is considered so offensive that few Americans, other than some African-American hip-hop artists, ever use it in public.

Another example might be derogatory slang aimed at Jews. Suppose someone decided that they wanted to hold a contest to see who could draw offensive stereotypical Jewish characters. Yes, you could do it, but it’s my guess that the Jewish community in whatever city you chose to hold such a contest would not react as calmly as the Muslim community of metropolitan Dallas did to Geller’s bigoted event.

And there’s a reason for that. Whether anyone likes to admit it or not, it’s OK to say things about Muslim Americans and Islam that you would never say about Jews, Catholics, or other religions. Slander these religions and you can expect to receive overwhelmingly negative feedback. (If you want to see one rather silly example of this look at the way that Fox “News” has championed the so-called “War on Christmas,” where Fox hosts regularly veer into high dudgeon when people say ‘Happy Holidays’ rather than “Merry Christmas.”)

Talk show hosts, conservative Christian religious leaders, Islamaphobes like Geller, feel free to slander Muslims and Islam without a second thought. Yes they often are criticized for what they say, but Muslims and Islam have not yet achieved that special category of “not so absolute . . . absolute free speech”.

As an atheist, I consider all religions ridiculous. But as an American I absolutely believe in the right of people to worship in whatever way they desire. And one feels optimistic after hearing the response of so many people to Geller. There are lots of things that you can say and do in opposition to radical extremists that would be supported by everyone, including Muslims, but it’s important to remember that Islam is a big religion with many different strains, like Christianity. You should no more condemn all Muslims for the acts of a violent splinter group within Islam, then you would condemn Christians for the acts of violent, frequently murderous, anti-abortion fundamentalists.

But there’s another point here that’s important to make. Americans value free speech above all but they know when too much is too much. By letting bigots like Geller and others sound off at will, in the end they do themselves more harm than good. It would be far more dangerous to silence her and let her turn herself into a martyr for her misbegotten cause, then to let herself self-destruct with her own words and actions.

In the end, perhaps the lesson we take from this is that free speech is a fundamental and essential part of what it means to be an American. It is one of the characteristics that separate the United States from many other countries in the world, and it is the greatest guardian of its democracy. And as this country grows in maturity and wisdom perhaps Americans will learn to use it increasingly like a rapier than a broadsword, while achieving the same goals in the end.

Copyright Tom Regan 2015

Contact Tom Regan:

Further reading and viewing:

Why Pam Geller’s Muslim-baiting stunt in Garland was a big fat flop, by Peter Weber, The Week:

Muslims Defend Pam Geller’s Right to Hate, by Dean Obeidallah, The Daily Beast:

Pamela Geller, Organizer of Muhammad Cartoon Contest, Trumpets Results, by Alan Feuer, New York Times:

 Even bellicose Fox News took Pam Geller to task:


Tom Regan Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio A former executive director of the Online News Association, he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92.







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