Civil Liberties

The Right Not to be Offended?

Even offensive speech deserves protection


It's a discredit to our national confidence that each time some impolite thought—perceived or otherwise—is uttered, sketched, or typed, a faction of professionally offended Americans engages in a collective hypersensitivity meltdown.

It has been a long-standing custom for opponents to shut down debate by tagging adversaries with some dreadful labels. No one wants to be called a racist, a Commie, or a neocon. It's gotten to the point that the gatekeepers of the news walk so tepidly on the path of least resistance a journalist can't even get a dirty joke in the newspaper.

Attorney General Eric Holder recently claimed that we, as a nation, have been cowards on the topic of race. And maybe he's right. Some Americans are cowards. Other Americans—the ones in the media—worry that Al Sharpton might show up in their doorways and shake down their kids for allowance money.

Sean Delonas, cartooning at the New York Post, recently learned what happens when you inadvertently offend. He equated congressional authors of the so-called stimulus bill with that crazy rampaging chimpanzee (admittedly an unpardonable insult to our simian cousins). But some readers saw Barack Obama. So the situation has erupted into a massively stupid kerfuffle.

Now, I don't doubt that many readers of this admittedly unfortunate cartoon legitimately were offended. So let's, for the sake of argument, concede that the cartoonist is a raging racist. What now?

In protests this week, students at a New York college urged boycotts, began burning newspapers—a hop, skip, and jump from burning books!—and demanded that anyone involved with the cartoon be fired. Fair enough.

But now the Rev. Al has ordered a meeting with the Federal Communications Commission so he—a man who has set off more chaos, loathing, and racism in New York than any cartoonist—can discuss the ownership of the Post. The FCC, according to Sharpton, has acquiesced to meet in Washington.

As an antiquated government entity, the FCC controls the public airwaves and ownership of media companies. What if it meets with Sharpton and then moves against the New York Post's owner?

We largely have avoided the corrosive trend of chilling free speech—though discussions about the "Fairness Doctrine" (and its derivatives), which allows government to dictate what opinions Americans should hear on the public airwaves, remains a hobbyhorse for some lefties.

A media outlet, of course, is under no obligation to print something that gratuitously offends readers, and it would be counterproductive for it to do so. But umbrage often is taken regardless. Should an angry conservative leader have met with the FCC to discuss the future of The Washington Post's ownership when one of the paper's cartoonists depicted an American solider as a suicide bomber a few years ago? Imagine the outrage such a move would have caused.

Recently, Geert Wilders—a Dutch politician who produced the film "Fitna," which asserts that Islam is a threat to enlightened Western values—was refused entry into the United Kingdom because of that nation's policy to "stop those who want to spread extremism, hatred and violent messages."

The British proved Wilders' point about Islam's influence by suppressing free expression. The case of Wilders, who is in the U.S. right now, offers a cautionary lesson.

Feel free to be indignant and hurt. Feel free to boycott and to cast nasty aspersions on the decency of those who offend you. But let's keep government out of it. If we're not careful, the war against offensive speech could morph into a war against free speech.

David Harsanyi is a columnist at The Denver Post and the author of Nanny State.