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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Liberals, Muslim Activists Agree, Free Speech Really Isn't Free; OK to Stifle Dissent (And How Bill Bennett Misses This Point)

If nothing else, the swelling global controversy over those Danish cartoons has exposed a critical point on which too many Western liberals agree (in deeds, if not always in words) with Islamic extremists calling for suppression of such journalism.

Little Green Footballs points to a recent meeting in Philadelphia in which an influential American Muslim leader made clear his belief that freedom of speech has limits. And those limits sound very much like the limits favored by liberal academics behind the speech-limiting codes on major college campuses across America:

"'People have every right to give an opinion on something,' Rachel Lawton, executive director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, said. 'You cross the line when you threaten, intimidate or harass, and that is when free speech is limited.'

"CAIR board member Mazhar Rishi agreed. 'The right to free speech is not absolute,' Rishi said. 'It does not give a right to defame Prophet Muhammad or any other' religious figure."

CAIR is the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which is frequently described in the mainstream media as a voice of "moderate" Muslims in this country. Rishi is not listed as a board member on CAIR's web site. The article cited by LGF is from The Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper at the University of Pennsylvania.

The "cross the line" argument from Lawton is perhaps the most frequently used justification by academic liberals and their student acolytes for campus speech codes that restrict freedom of speech on a variety of grounds.

See law professor Cass Sunstein's Democracy and the Problem of Freedom of Speech for a full explication of the liberal view on why some speech should not be protected. "Hate" speech concerning religion is far from the only expression deserving of suppression; criticism of incumbent congressmen 60 days prior to an election should also be proscribed, according to many liberals.

You can read much more about abridgement of freedom of speech by American liberals on campus on the web site of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which does a wonderful job of combatting these anti-First Amendment codes in the courts and the media.

FIRE also has details on similar attacks on free speech at other campuses, including the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Chicago and Century College in Minnesota.

Of course, the First Amendment does not read "Congress shall make no law abriding ... the freedom of speech (except when it crosses somebody's imaginary 'line') ..."

UPDATE: More Who Crossed Somebody's Line

And speaking of people who seek to stifle others' freedom of speech, check out Scott Johnson's latest Powerline update on the efforts of Minnesota Democrats to shut down television advocacy ads featuring veterans of the conflict and their families speaking in support of the War in Iraq. The Dems think if they kill the ads in Minnesota, they will keep them from being aired elsewhere in America.

Guess those GIs "crossed the line."

UPDATE II: Kirtley "Non-plused"

Noted First Amendment lawyer Jane Kirtley at the University of Minnesota tells the Star-Tribune.com that KSTP, a local television station that rejected the veterans' ads, had every right to do so, but she's "non-plused" by that decision.

Perhaps Kirtley, a charter member of the Freedom of Information Hall of Fame, said more but Star-Tribune reporter Mark Brunswick failed to report it.

UPDATE III: Bill Bennett misses the mark on MSM and the cartoons

Normally, I agree with most everything Bill Bennett says, but Captain's Quarters' Ed Morrissey's post this morning points to something important the former Secretary of Education and federal drug czar appears to have missed in preparing an otherwise superb op-ed in The Washington Post, co-written with celebrity lawyer/talking head Alan Dershowitz.

Bennett and Dershowitz properly upbraid the MSM for failing to publish the Danish cartoons. It's not merely that the MSM has a constitutional right to publish such material, the unlikely duo argue, the MSM has a constitutional duty to do so:

"We two come from different political and philosophical perspectives, but on this we agree: Over the past few weeks, the press has betrayed not only its duties but its responsibilities. To our knowledge, only three print newspapers have followed their true calling: the Austin American-Statesman, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Sun.

"What have they done? They simply printed cartoons that were at the center of widespread turmoil among Muslims over depictions of the prophet Muhammad. These papers did their duty."

And how do Bennett and Dershowitz explain this failure? They ascribe it to a lack of guts in the newsroom in the face of threats of physical retaliation by rioting Muslims enraged by the Danish cartoons:

"To put it simply, radical Islamists have won a war of intimidation. They have cowed the major news media from showing these cartoons. The mainstream press has capitulated to the Islamists - their threats more than their sensibilities."

But that is where Bennett and Dershowitz miss the point: As a practical matter, many MSMers are undoubtedly intimidated by Muslim threats of retalilation but when the response to the cartoon controversy is viewed in the longer context of McCain-Feingold, it becomes clear why the MSMers hotly deny that fear is the reason for their decision not to publish the offending material. In the final analysis, it's not the fear that counts.

Remember, the MSM is overwhelmingly liberal and one of the chief tenets of liberalism these days is that freedom of speech "has limits," as illustrated in the Philadelphia situation described at the top of this post.

What liberals define as "hate speech"includes, selectively to be sure, mocking an individual's religion. Such speech "crosses the line" and is justifiably excluded from legitimate public discourse.

So of course the liberals who dominate the MSM are not going to publish those Danish cartoons. They are self-censoring "hate speech" and while they likely reject the methods of the Muslim extremists' censorship, our liberal MSMers cannot disagree with the underlying principle justifying the censorship.

This is not to say that all liberals support censorship. I know and respect many who don't. But the truth is that support, especially on college campuses, for speech "codes" that proscribe some kinds of politically incorrect speech comes virtually uniformly from liberals and others on the Left of the political spectrum.

Conservatives have got to understand this fact about contemporary liberals - they define much of what we conservatives have to say in public debate as hate speech and they are willing to use the force of government to silence us.

If you doubt me, look at McCain-Feingold. Then look at the liberals response to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the attempt by President Bill Clinton and other liberals to pin responsibility for that terrible event on the "climate of hate" allegedly created by conservatives in Talk Radio and elsewhere.

Then go back to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and the extensive use made by officials in both of the Fairness Doctrine to silence religious and political conservatives in the old media.

For our liberals, it's not a question of if freedom of speech should be stifled, but rather how. For conservatives, freedom of speech is a matter of our survival as full participants in the public policy debate.

HT: Little Green Footballs