Courage and Freedom of Speech

We’re covering freedom of speech now in Constitutional Law, and I found a couple of quotes that are particularly stirring, especially in light of the following column from Lenoard Pitt:

In 1989, photographer Andres Serrano exhibited a photo he called “Piss Christ,” depicting a crucifix submerged in urine. It raised a furor and was condemned on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Nobody was killed.

In 1999, artist Chris Ofili exhibited a painting he called “The Holy Virgin Mary,” in which the mother of Jesus has an exposed breast made of elephant dung. It drew a rebuke from the mayor of New York and crowds of protesters.

Nobody was injured.

Last year, a Danish newspaper printed political cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, one showing him with a bomb in his turban. There were weeks of rioting across Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa. At least one person died in Somalia, five in Afghanistan, a hundred in Nigeria. An untold number of people were injured. Property damage was in the millions.

You may think the point of the foregoing parallel is that Christians react more maturely to provocation than Muslims. You would be mistaken. After all, Muslims in America, surely as offended by the cartoons of the prophet as Muslims anywhere else, did not riot or kill. Their protests were confined to statements of anger and letters to editors.

No, the point has less to do with religion than with culture. As in, some cultures value freedom of expression more than others. Some realize the person who is not free to speak his or her mind is not truly free at all.

And some know courage is the price of that freedom.

And to salute that, I quote the following from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ dissent in Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652 (1925):

Every idea is an incitement. It offers itself for belief and if believed it is acted on unless some other belief outweighs it or some failure of energy stifles the movement at its birth. The only difference between the expression of an opinion and an incitement in the narrower sense is the speaker’s enthusiasm for the result. Eloquence may set fire to reason.

And the following is from Justice Louis Brandeis’ concurrence in Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927):

If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.

Islam right now is going through major growing pains, exacerbated by the difficulties of coping with modernity. As such, it is experiencing the same doubt that Americans must have felt when confronted with the Russian Revolution of 1919, and the subsequent Bolshevik triumph over Tsarist loyalists in the 1920s. Islam and its adherents feel beset on all sides, and is in very real danger of falling for the human temptation to silence critics rather than rebut the critics’ claims. If Allah smiles on the umma, courage rather than cowardice will have the last say in this generational struggle for civilizational identity.

It is also a reminder, to those of us in the West that have come through, not only to continue to support the courageous members of the umma, but also not to give in to our own darker temptations. Gitlow and Whitney were decided less than a century ago (although to Americans that is a long time), and the freedom of speech is still a litigated field. Let us not betray the hopes of Justices Holmes and Brandeis.

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]

2 thoughts on “Courage and Freedom of Speech”

  1. Don’t forget that piss christ was made famous because it won an award sponsored in part by the NEA. People weren’t so upset that the art existed, they were just upset that a government organization was in any involved.

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