< Speech Impediment


Friday, February 10, 2006

BOB GARFIELD: We're back with our special Middle East broadcast of On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. The New York Press is an alternative weekly in New York City with a circulation of about 116,000 - not big by newspaper standards. But this week, the paper made big headlines when three of its top editors and a reporter abruptly quit after the owner refused to publish the infamous Danish Mohammed caricatures. In a statement, management said the images, quote, "were not critical for the editorial comment to have merit and only served to further fan the flame of a volatile situation." The same rationale has been invoked by most American news organizations this week. Only two major dailies and a few smaller papers have reprinted the images. But Tim Marchman, New York Press managing editor - make that former managing editor - says it wouldn't have been enough to simply describe the offensive cartoons.

TIM MARCHMAN: I think there are two reasons why not. First, I think that the reason most outlets have not run this is the threat of violence, and I think that there is an obligation for the press to run these images to show that violence will not carry a veto over images that run in Western newspapers. Secondarily, I think the press needs to run these images because of a very curious argument that I've heard, which is that the description of the images suffices because readers can go to the Internet to find the images. It's obscene for any newspaper man to say that, to say that a newspaper's coverage doesn't need to be substantially complete in its own right. It's farcical.

BOB GARFIELD: But is there no cartoon or caricature that would cross the line for you? I mean, where is your line where the issues of offensiveness trump that of, you know, delivery of news and information?

TIM MARCHMAN: I don't know where that line is. I'm a free speech absolutist, and I don't think that there is any image too grotesque or offensive to some people for it to be indefensible to run it.

BOB GARFIELD: Lynching cartoons? Holocaust cartoons?

TIM MARCHMAN: No. I absolutely support the right of newspapers to run these images. If those are met with criticisms from fellow members of the press, from the public, boycotts, you know, revocation of advertising dollars, that's entirely appropriate.

BOB GARFIELD: If Marchman's move was extreme, it was still in keeping with this country's basic journalistic values. But in Europe, where the cartoons originated, free speech absolutists have a harder time making their case. That's because in the aftermath of World War II many European nations passed laws banning racist speech, Holocaust denial and incitement, laws which set a precedent, says University of Michigan visiting law professor David Bernstein, a precedent for further restrictions down the road by other aggrieved groups.

DAVID BERNSTEIN: Incitement basically means that you encourage people to engage in illegal acts. This was the case in England, actually, where an imam of a mosque was charged with incitement and convicted because he had urged his followers to kill specific groups that are not Muslims. In Europe, if you encourage people to commit violence and they do it, even if you can't trace the violence directly to the person who made the statement, you could be charged. Now in the United States, this would be protected by the First Amendment because unless you could show a very direct relationship between the speech - in other words, someone actually saying, "Get that person over there" - and the action, it would be protected. Hate speech basically is just defined as the kind of speech that will tend to lead people to want to engage in negative action against a minority group. So, if you public a controversial scientific study, say, on race and intelligence, that would not be considered hate speech unless it was your intent to try to denigrate the group that was shown to have lower intelligence.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, you have asserted - this is not settled law in the United States - that under the right political circumstances, the U.S. Congress could enact laws that do encroach on First Amendment rights. Tell me that scenario.

DAVID BERNSTEIN: It's a very fragile consensus that we have in the legal community in favor of strong protections for freedom of speech, and this consensus is only 50 years old, maybe. And we used to have rather strict libel laws in the United States that really inhibited people from saying nasty things. We used to have group libel laws even limiting what you could say about particular groups. We used to have blasphemy laws that prohibited taking the lord's name in vain. In this country, we don't have formal speech restrictions but we do, to some extent, allow political correctness to be codified in the law and required in the workplace and in schools - through university speech codes, even in state universities. There's a lot of controversy over that. Liberals who used to be the strongest supporters of freedom of speech have taken a step back, and a very large percentage of the law professors who teach constitutional law now believe that some sort of hate speech restrictions are constitutional. We haven't really seen this affecting the law so much because, first of all, we have a lot of Reagan and Bush appointees on the federal courts. Even with Bill Clinton, he was appointing people who went to law school in the '50s, '60s. I wonder what will happen, though, in 20 or 30 or 40 years if you have liberal Presidents in power and the next generation of lawyers making the law have grown up in an era where they're taught that we should have more restrictions on freedom of speech. But I think the Mohammed cartoon controversy shows the dangers of looking at things from only the alleged victim's perspective. Almost inevitably, someone's going to be offended by almost anything anyone can say that's critical. What we should be aiming for is a situation where we require people, basically, to tolerate things that offend them.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay. David, thank you very much.


BOB GARFIELD: David Bernstein is author of You Can't Say That: The Growing Threat to Civil Liberties from Anti-Discrimination Laws. The question of limits to free speech, what they should be and whether they should exist at all, has been a constant theme in the week's cartoon coverage, but in making this story mainly about free speech, do the American media end up casting the world's Muslims as freedom-hating fanatics? Middle East historian and blogger Juan Cole thinks so, and he says there's a better way of understanding what's going on. It's less about religion, he wrote this week in Salon, than about religious nationalism and the specific power struggles taking place in each country.

JUAN COLE: The story is the ways in which this controversy has been used within Middle Eastern societies. I think a lot of the more secular-minded and liberal groups have been the most vocal in denouncing the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed because it's an easy way of bolstering their own Islamic credentials, and it's cost-free. Look at who has been most vocal all along since last fall on these caricatures. It's been the Foreign Minister of Egypt, a representative of a secular military regime, which is, in fact, under a lot of pressure from the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood. Or you look at - the most violent incidents were in the secular cities of Damascus and Beirut, not known for their Islamic fundamentalism.

BOB GARFIELD: Understood, but before we entirely dismiss the notion of widespread fanaticism, these incitements, cynical though they may have been, nonetheless, you know, got hundreds of thousands of people in the streets of Beirut chanting against Denmark and so forth. In other words, it wasn't hard for them to get traction. There must be something going on there.

JUAN COLE: Well yes, but the question is what exactly is going on? And one thing that should be underlined is that it's widely thought that the mere depiction of the Prophet Mohammed is somehow being objected to. I don't think most Muslims care too much if the Danes want to draw pictures of the Prophet Mohammed. And indeed, there's a famous issue of the French adventure magazine Tintin with the Prophet's picture on the front, and nobody ever made a big deal out of that. The issue is really more a kind of racist depiction of the Prophet Mohammed. Now, we in America don't have a strong sense of European colonialism, but most Muslim countries have been ruled for much of the last 200 years by Europeans. And while the Europeans were ruling places like Algeria, they weren't nice to Islam or Muslims. And they had a racist discourse about it. They depicted Semites as fanatical, as violent, as irrational, and therefore, as needing European rule. So, to take the Prophet Mohammed and to depict him with a large nose and a bomb in his turban, it's a continuation of those exact same anti-Semitic and racist themes that have been characteristic of European colonial discourse for 150 years. This is not something new, and people in the Middle East are tired of it.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, if it's true that this whole conflict has been portrayed in simplistic and maybe dangerous ways, who's most at fault? Is it the American media? Is it the Arab media? Is it the Arab politicians who have waved the cartoons, the real ones, [LAUGHS] and then fake ones as well, in the face of their constituencies? Clerics? Who?

JUAN COLE: Well, the entire episode has been full of demagoguery, and demagogues always feel that they benefit from these public displays. So everybody's seeing what they can get out of it. The American believers in a war on terror have another stick with which to beat Muslims. The Hizbullah in Southern Lebanon suddenly has an issue to mobilize people on the streets in Beirut. The Egyptian secular foreign minister now can boast of his Islamic credentials. A secular Pakistani party like the P.P.P. can denounce Denmark, but at the same time introduce a resolution to repeal Islamic law. So everybody's getting something out of this, which is why it's such a big hullabaloo.

BOB GARFIELD: All right, Juan. Well as always, thank you very much.

JUAN COLE: You're very welcome.

BOB GARFIELD: Juan Cole teaches Modern Middle East and South Asian history at the University of Michigan and blogs at Juancole.com. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]