Who Protects Freedom Of Speech?

I’ve been meaning to post on this topic, but Tigerhawk beat me to what I was going to say:

Comedy Central has, at least, been forthcoming about its reason for censoring “South Park”:

Comedy Central’s belief in the First Amendment has not wavered, despite the decision not to air an image of Muhammad. Our decision was made not to mute the voices of Trey and Matt or because we value one religion over any other. This decision was based solely on concern for public safety in light of recent world events.

With the power of freedom of speech and expression also comes the obligation to use that power in a responsible way. Much as we wish it weren’t the case, times have changed and, as witnessed by the intense and deadly reaction to the publication of the Danish cartoons, decisions cannot be made in a vacuum without considering what impact they may have on innocent individuals around the globe.

We appreciate the transparency, because it prevents us from having to imagine the reasons Comedy Central might have had. This admission clarifies the issue. Comedy Central censored “South Park” because it feared that Muslim extremists would do violence if it did not.

Now, businesses like Comedy Central and Border’s Books and the major newspapers have every reason to want to avoid violence, so it is understandable that threatened or potential violence motivates them to censor themselves. They are fiduciaries. But they cannot also claim to stand for freedom of speech. That requires courage, and above all the willingness to stare down the threat of violence.

[Emphasis Tigerhawk’s, but I agree]

Yes. The point is that Borders (and Comedy Central) had a perfect right to abide by their fiduciary responsibilities to their shareholders, in not putting themselves in a position of being sued by someone injured by violent muslims as a result of their book and magazine sales. But when they do that, they forfeit any right to claim to be upholders of free speech. I was upset less by Borders’ actions, than by their unwillingness to be forthright about their reason for them, which would have provided more insight into the enemy that we face.

There are some other interesting points made in the comments to Tigerhawk’s post. How much responsibility does Borders have to protect their own customers, versus the responsibility of the government to do so? Would a plaintiff have a legitimate (and more important, in these days of nonsensical and whimsical jury decisions in civil cases) case that Borders was irresponsible in selling magazines that published cartoons that some violent people would find offensive?

On this holiest day of the Christian calendar, these are useful questions to think about and ask. Will CAIR put up guards outside of Borders to protect freedom of expression in this country? If not, why not? And if not, what does that tell us about where their primary loyalty lies? What part of their name is more important to them, the American (the “A” part of the acronym) or the Islamic (the “I” part)? If the answer is the latter–that it is not allowed to depict Mohammed, let alone insult him–is more important than the right of free expression, this tells us much, I think.

If we are to be cowed against criticism of a religion (uniquely of Islam) by violent threats, but free to have “Piss Christ,” and the Middle Eastern press (hardly a free one) can run cartoons reiterating over and over the blood libel against the Jews and compare them to Nazis, what does that tell us about Islam itself? Can we live with it, not as it purports to be, but (as revealed by this episode) it really is, and maintain our own values?

[Update on Monday morning]

There is some discussion in comments about the First Amendment, and whether or not Borders has a responsibility to enforce it. That’s not what this is about. The First Amendment is an example of what’s being discussed here, not the basis of it. What is at stake is not a constitutional right, but a fundamental principle of the Enlightenment.

Does, or does not, Borders stand for freedom of expression? If they don’t, if they have been cowed by some combination of Islamic and legal threats, then they should forthrightly make a very public and loud statement to that effect, describing exactly what went into their decision. While it’s true that, as one commenter noted, they have been transparent in this, in terms of email explanations, I want them to be more than that. If they purport to support this freedom, I expect them to be incandescent.