Here's to Absolute Free Speech (Within Limits)

Just as the controversy over the Danish newspaper cartoons of Muhammad seems to be waning overseas, it’s heating up here. The first newspaper I ever wrote for, the Daily Illini at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign), has made a big spread in the New York Times. And not for winning a Pulitzer. No, it printed six of the cartoons, leading to the suspension of both the editor-in-chief and the opinions page editor.

Unfortunately, Acton Gorton, 25, the suspended editor-in-chief (who may have also violated accepted D.I. procedures in his zeal to print the cartoons), didn’t present the best defense. "We did this to raise a healthy dialogue about an important issue that is in the news and so that people would learn more about Islam," he told the Times.

No, Mr. Gordon, you didn’t educate people about Islam and you didn’t intend to. Your purpose was (or should have been) to show that Americans are not about to suddenly toss away a two-century tradition of free speech. You ran the cartoons because you knew people didn’t want you to; don’t wimp out now.

The real wimp is University Chancellor Richard Herman, who sent a letter to the D.I. that read in part, "I believe that the D.I. could have engaged its readers in legitimate debate about the issues surrounding the cartoons’ publication in Denmark without publishing them. It is possible, for instance, to editorialize about pornography without publishing pornographic pictures."

Really? Dollars to doughnuts Herman wouldn’t have said the same about the images of abuse from Abu Ghraib. Imagine if the print media had simply described "a man wearing a hood standing on a box with wires taped to his fingers." Loses something in the translation, doesn’t it?

More importantly, you don’t make a point about exercising free speech by allowing yourself to be intimidated into not exercising free speech. And while public health officials warn us we don’t get nearly enough exercise, the one thing Americans exercise more than anybody is free expression.

Some Muslims have rightly accused European countries of hypocrisy because they allowed the cartoons but have laws against denying the Holocaust in print. But over here being offensive is 100% legal and thank heaven for it, because the alternative is somebody deciding what is and isn’t.

Ah, but portraying Muhammad goes beyond insulting; it’s utter blasphemy to Muslims, right? So say numerous news stories. But not only should blasphemy still be protected speech, the very assertion is wrong. Depictions of Muhammad are forbidden by neither the Koran nor Islamic law. The Muslim art world overflows with prophet portraits. You’ll find a huge collection at the website

So we’re left with why Shaz Kaiseruddin, a third-year law student at the University of Illinois and president of the Muslim Student Association, objected to the printing of the cartoons. She said it was enough that the D.I. was “so ignorant and disrespectful."

Sorry Miss, but when you move to or even visit a new land you agree that you (and if you stay) your progeny will abide by its laws and customs. Here you have to put up with a newspaper printing a cartoon of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban.

But depending on where you or your family came from, you could have been born in a nation that stones women for committing adultery, forces them to wear a Burqa, forbids them to vote, and won’t let them drive. Is that your idea of showing respect?

That’s not to say: “America, love it or leave it.” There’s yet a third route: change it.

Miss Kaiseruddin has the right to try to convince us her position on depictions of Muhammad is correct, indeed she expressed that position in the nation’s most prominent newspaper, regarding an occurrence in one of America’s least prominent newspapers. She’s exercising her free speech rights, even as she would deny them to others.

Oh, and then there’s the view of Reem Rahman of the UI Council on American-Islamic Relations. She told the local paper that her fellow Muslim students "absolutely respect" the right of free speech, but not when it deliberately disparages an ethnic or religious group. Look up the meaning of “absolute” in two dictionaries, Miss Rahman, and call me in the morning.

Below are the cartoons published in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten. Click each image to enlarge.

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