Joseph Klein: The Media’s Assault on the Defenders of Free Speech

An American jihadist associated with the Islamic State is reported to have posted a message on social media vowing that the Islamic State would “slaughter” Pamela Geller, the blogger whose American Freedom Defense Initiative sponsored a “Draw Muhammad” contest in Texas last week. Two jihadists were killed by a policeman guarding the contest site as they tried to storm the meeting and conduct a Charlie Hebdo-style massacre. ISIS has taken credit for the attack. The chilling message claimed that ISIS has “71 trained soldiers in 15 different states ready at our word to attack any target we desire.” The message warned that everyone hosting an event put on by Geller or giving her “a platform to spill her filth are legitimate targets.”

Pamela Geller is defiant. She declared that she has no intention of cowering and intends to hold another free speech event in the near future. “This threat illustrates the savagery and barbarism of the Islamic State,” Geller told theDaily News in a statement she later posted on her website. “They want me dead for violating Sharia blasphemy laws. What remains to be seen is whether the free world will finally wake up and stand for the freedom of speech, or instead kowtow to this evil and continue to denounce me.”

The reaction of the self-proclaimed non-violent Islamist group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), is no surprise. The Muslim Brotherhood-linked CAIR solemnly condemned the violent reaction to the event, but went after Geller and other prominent people associated with the Texas contest who dare to criticize Islam, such as Robert Spencer and Geert Wilders.  CAIR lumped them together with the “perpetrators” of the violent attack because, in CAIR’s words, they “all seek to provoke a downward spiral of mutual hostility and mistrust in America and around the world.”

Disappointing to say the least is that mainstream commentators on both sides of the ideological spectrum have parroted the CAIR talking points. They have ganged up on Pamela Geller for being the prime instigator of a foreseeable violent reaction to her provocative event. They blamed the victim rather than viewing this latest Islamist violence for what it is – an assault on free expression. They have self-righteously declared that, while Geller had the legal right to conduct the Draw Muhammad contest, she was irresponsible for exercising her right.

Bill O’Reilly, for example, said on his May 5th Fox News show: “By setting up a contest and awarding $10,000 for a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, the American Freedom Defense Initiative spurred a violent attack.”

Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham agreed with O’Reilly. She said on the same show that Geller and her group acted irresponsibly in hosting the Draw Muhammad contest. “There are a lot of things that we can say, that we have a right to say, that we shouldn’t say,” said Ingraham.

MSNBC’s Chris Matthews mused at loud on his May 4th show whether, because Geller’s contest was set up “to basically disparage and make fun of the prophet Mohammed,” it actually caused the subsequent violent events. He settled for the word “provoking” rather than “causing.” Matthews’ guest, NBC terrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann, asserted that the contest had nothing to do with defending the principles of free speech. Rather, he said, it was about “standing by the principle of hatred of other people.” The violent reaction was totally predictable, Kohlmann said, because when “you incite people, and you say nasty invective about people’s ancestors and their religious symbols, that there are a couple of crazy nutcases that are going to come out of the woodwork and are going to try to take action over it.”

At the Vox news site, Max Fisher wrote that the Draw Muhammad event “was not principally a free speech event; it was an anti-Muslim hate event.”

New York Times foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi tweeted: “Free speech aside, why would anyone do something as provocative as hosting a ‘Muhammad drawing contest’?”

Free speech aside? Free speech is the whole point! The First Amendment protects even the most offensive, hateful speech, so long as it does not incite the commitment of imminent violence by members of the intended audience against those being targeted by the offensive speech.

In a 2011 Supreme Court First Amendment case (Snyder v. Phelps), Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “[s]peech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and—as it did here—inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

The argument that Pamela Geller knew there could well be a violent reaction to the Draw Muhammad event seeks to cast blame on her for provoking the violence that occurred. She should have refrained from being so offensive, the argument goes. However, had she done so, those who seek to censor free speech they do not like would have won. Allowing the offended believers to be the arbiters of what can be said or published about their faith on the basis of whether they would be likely to react violently provides them with an effective veto power over free speech. The U.S. Supreme Court has referred to this as an impermissible “heckler’s veto.”  The potential for violence by those offended by speech cannot be taken into account in applying the “incitement to imminent violence” standard because to do so would effectively create a vicious cycle, allowing them to censor such speech by claiming its content would incite them to commit retaliatory violence.

Finally, some detractors of Pamela Geller use a variant of the non-discrimination argument by accusing her of selective bigotry in going after only one religion.

Ironically, even the top editor at Charlie Hebdo, the target of a jihadist massacre in Paris last January, distanced himself from Pamela Geller’s exercise of free expression. “We have nothing to do with Pamela Geller’s work,” Gérard Biard said. “When Islam or the Prophet Muhammad jump out of the news, we comment on it, we mock it, maybe. But we are not obsessed about it. Out of 500 covers in the past 10 years, only seven were made about Islam. So it’s not our obsession. We’re dealing with politics, we’re dealing with other religions.”

Biard was in New York this week to receive an award for “freedom of expression courage” from the prominent literary organization, PEN American Center. In protest against what some members of PEN claimed was anti-Muslim bigotry being promoted by Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, some pulled out of hosting tables at the gala at which the award was presented.  Other members wrote a stinging letter stating that the satirical magazine did not deserve the award because it would be seen as honoring the publication of “material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.”

Biard took issue with the critics, but then turned around and threw Geller under the bus for exercising her right of free expression. His attempt to differentiate his magazine from Geller’s activities by saying that Charlie Hebdo satirizes a broad range of religions and political leaders, not just Islam, is lame at best.

True, Charlie Hebdo does not discriminate among religions in its satire. Its point is to expose the self-importance, extremism and hypocrisy that its editors believe afflict all religions. Pamela Geller is seeking to communicate a different message that seeks to expose what she sees as the Islamist supremacist ideology that uniquely threatens Western values such as free expression itself. By definition, Geller is focusing on one religion to the exclusion of others because she sees Islamic Sharia law creeping into various American institutions, already having the stealth effect of suppressing the free exchange of ideas. Terms like jihad, Islamic terrorism and radical Islam are banned from federal government law enforcement training materials. Political correctness freezes vibrant discussion and critique of Islam on college campuses. The epithet “Islamaphobia” is used like the race card to shut off debate. President Obama himself has given the Islamists a boost by declaring at the United Nations in 2012, shortly after the release of the anti-Muslim video that members of his administration initially blamed for the Benghazi attacks: “The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.”

Trying to weigh what is and what is not permissible content, based on whom may be offended, is the road to tyranny. Pamela Geller’s methods may be disagreeable to some, but the lesson she is trying to teach is in the spirit of the Founding Fathers.