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Does Free Speech Mean Free to Offend?

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I believe we should be like Canada -- free to speak, but not free to offend

wrote a reader in response to one of my blogs on The Huffington Post. Rather than shoot off a quick response, I decided to save the topic for a full discussion.

Most of us try not to offend others in daily life. It's as if over centuries we have a communal memory that the world runs more smoothly when we all get along, not needing to halt progress to repair bridges.

The negative potential of offense on cooperation was recognized early in American history. In his farewell address to the Pilgrims as they set sail for our distant shore, John Robinson said:

We must be watchful that we ourselves neither give, nor easily take offense... Persons ready to take offense, either lack the charity which should cover offenses; or the wisdom duly to weigh human frailty... In my own experience I have found few who are quicker to give offense, than those who easily take it. They who have nourished this touchy humour have never proved sound and profitable members in societies.

Our generation is not the first to have grappled with the limits of free speech. As a fledgling nation America struggled to define the limits of this First Amendment right. The Sedition Act of 1798 criminalized saying scandalous and malicious things against the government and its officials -- a pastime we take for granted today. For example, one man was tried for making a disrespectful joke about the president. Fortunately, the act expired in 1801, during the term of presidency of Thomas Jefferson, who believed the Sedition Act violated both the First and Tenth Amendments.

We all enjoy criticism and jokes on others more than ourselves. This makes Voltaire's paraphrased quote more impressive in its devotion to free speech, "I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Freedom of speech in America is now being challenged on several fronts. Perhaps not coincidentally some of these fronts involve conservative Islam versus Western values.

Think about it: many nations, including most in the Middle East, either officially or unofficially have policies in place which are very much like the Sedition Act. When visiting, you will notice that not only are citizens of these countries wary of how they speak about their governments, but they also frequently display leaders' pictures to confirm their devotion. Similar taboos, perhaps even stronger because of the sanctity of the subject, exist in these countries regarding Islam.

Our system seems to expect new immigrants to pick up "the American way" by osmosis. They receive no more training on how to adjust to life in the West than they do in proper trash disposal. Imagine the difficulty for people from nations where it goes without saying that disrespect of leaders and religion is not tolerated. To them it seems natural to expect respect of leaders, including Prophet Mohammed -- in the way we wear seatbelts even when they are not required, simply because we are used to them.

More than once I have had the interesting experience of being told by new immigrant Muslims to curtail my free speech, only to have Westernized Muslims rebuke them and remind them that in America I am within my rights.

Some people have to learn the hard way to respect the freedoms we have in America. When a woman I know stopped wearing a hijab she was harassed by people from her homeland to the point that she was afraid and could not sleep. The woman finally filed a restraining order against one of the men threatening her, and he was deported back to the Middle East. Through this challenging situation, several people learned that America does not tolerate such intimidation. But not all women are so brave in standing for their rights.

One of the fronts where freedom of speech is now challenged has been addressed in my previous blogs, namely references to the Prophet Mohammed. At times the offense need not even be insulting, as with a veiled allusion in The Jewel of Medina to Prophet Mohammed's having sex with a wife -- a paragraph far less graphic than we can read about Mohammed's actual sex life in the most respected Muslim hadiths.

In the Arab enclave of Dearborn, Michigan, where four people were arrested this summer, freedom of speech is a current hot topic. Strong statements are being made on both sides as to whether or not the Arab International Festival is more, perhaps illegally more, stringent on freedom of speech than other street festivals across America.

What Dearborn, in fact all of us need to do is be able to detach our response to the message from the legality of the message itself. Does the fact that we don't like a message make it illegal?

This brings up the concept of "the heckler's veto" -- a process by which an unfavorable response to a speaker prohibits presentation of their message. Generally this is considered an illegal form of repressing free speech in the USA, where legality of a message is not determined by the agreement or disagreement of the hearers. Although no doubt satisfying to the hecklers themselves, these actions tend to reflect unfavorably on the discipline and open-mindedness of those heckling. A form of heckler's veto occurs on university campuses. In the past few years campus Muslim groups have created disturbances which successfully stopped speakers who offend them.

If being offensive becomes illegal, I'd like to submit my list of infractions now. I'm offended by: body odor, bad breath, butt cracks, bull's balls hanging under pick-up trucks, military personnel who swear in public, signs declaring "Death to the Enemies of Islam," and men who discuss if they want to "F..." me in front of my face because they don't think I understand their language. Oh yes, anyone who preaches genocide against any race.

Obviously life is full of offense. We can't legislate good taste or make everything that offends everyone illegal. Freedom of speech entails the freedom to offend. That doesn't mean we have to offend, and as John Robinson told us, for the most part we will work together better if we don't.

Is the West to the point however, of deciding that certain groups can be offended, but not others? Is that what Comedy Central did with its cartoons? If we practice an unwritten "Sedition Act" in favor of Muslims because we don't want to get bombed or sued, but accept offending atheists, Jews, and Christians because they won't riot in retribution, will that really help radical Muslims mature and fit into the modern world? Wouldn't that be a little like giving a lollipop to the child who throws a tantrum but not his good siblings?

The truth can withstand scrutiny. All philosophies -- religious, political, or otherwise should be confident enough to invite inquiry and criticism. I suggest that Islam show itself to be a mature faith by openly accepting these processes, rather than appear insecure by being easily offended with them.