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Are Radical Imams Going to Redefine Freedom of Speech?

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Now there are threats of violence directed against France for the publication of a cartoon depicting the prophet Mohammad in violation of Islamic law. This is simply the most recent manifestation of a worldwide effort to censor freedom of expression and make it conform to the most radical interpretation of Islamic tradition. The bounty on the head of Salman Rushdie was recently increased and this distinguished author remains in peril. Theo Van Gogh was murdered for violating Islamic Law. And numerous people have been killed as the result of cartoons being published in Denmark and a video shown on YouTube.

I have seen several minutes of the stupid little film that has, arguably, incited so much violence and the deaths of four distinguished public servants, including a United States Ambassador who was uniquely sympathetic to Islam and Arab interests.

There is nothing good that can be said about the low budget film. It has little redeeming social value and the world would be a better place if it had never been made or shown. Nevertheless, it would be wrong, and under American law unconstitutional, to censor or punish such despicable expression. Freedom of speech means freedom for those who you despise, and freedom to express the most despicable views. It also means that the government cannot pick and choose which expressions to authorize and which to prevent.

There are several exceptions recognized under American law to untrammeled freedom of expression. These include falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater, fighting words and speech that present a clear and present danger of inciting violence. Even if these exceptions were applied to anti-Islamic expressions that would not solve the problem. It is easy to argue that a video such as the one on YouTube could be banned without doing much damage to freedom of expression, but that would only be the tip of the iceberg. The radical Imams who incite the violence would not be satisfied until they could decide what could be seen and heard. They want to become the ultimate judges, juries and executioners when it comes to anything that relates to Islam or its prophet. But religious fanatics who are easily offended by those outside of their religion who violate the rules of their religion cannot serve as censors in democratic societies. The threat or fear of violence should not become an excuse or justification for restricting freedom of speech.

Those who blame America for allowing what some Muslims regard as blasphemous speech must come to understand that by not censoring such speech, the government does not place its imprimatur upon it. That may be difficult to understand for people who have come of age in repressive regimes which do not permit any expressions disfavored by the government. In such regimes, the publication of bigoted materials can be taken as representing the views of the government. For example, when Iranians newspapers publish anti-Semitic diatribes, the views expressed in those diatribes are the views of the government. Not so with democratic states. Indeed it is probably true that more anti-Semitic material is published in the United States than in Iran, simply because so much is published here and almost none of it is subject to any kind of restriction or censorship. That does not make the United States an anti-Semitic country, but rather a country in which there is freedom to express anti-Semitic views. It does make Iran an anti-Semitic country, because all views that appear in the media must be approved by the government.

Some who are now calling on governments to censor expressions that are deemed offensive to Muslims point to the fact that some European governments do censor Holocaust-denial speech. It is false comparison. First, only a tiny number of governments -- most particularly Germany, which was responsible for the Holocaust -- censor Holocaust-denial speech. The vast majority of countries, including the United States, impose no such censorship. As far as I know no Muslim or Arab country censors Holocaust-denial speech. To the contrary, several such countries, led by Iran, promote such hate speech. Second, the Holocaust is a fact that no reasonable historian can dispute. The kinds of views that have caused the recent violence are expressions of opinion regarding an historical character about which historians vigorously disagree. Finally, I for one would like to see an end to the censorship of Holocaust-denial speech. Let those like Ahmadinejad who insist on lying about the history of European Jewry be defeated in the marketplace of ideas. Truth does not need censorship to defend it.

So let us not allow those who employ violence to initiate a debate about the limits of free speech. Democracies should not allow themselves to be held hostage to violent extremists. Having said that, freedom of speech also requires decent people to condemn those who abuse freedom by needlessly insulting the religious beliefs of others or by being insensitive to the havoc they may be causing by exercising their freedom of speech. This film should be condemned in the marketplace of ideas, but the writings of Salman Rushdie and the publishing of political cartoons should not be condemned.

Individuals have the right to pick and choose which expressions to condemn, which to praise and which to say nothing about. Governments, however, must remain neutral as to the content of expression. And governments must protect the rights of all to express even the most despicable of views. Finally, the international community must use its collective power to apprehend and punish anyone who commits violence in reaction to expressions with which they disagree. Being offended by freedom of speech should never be regarded as a justification for violence.

An earlier and shorter version of this blog appeared in Ha'aretz

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