Defending the Right to Offend

The never-ending assault on free expression


On December 9, 2010, the Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes Reason magazine,Reason.com, and Reason.tv, held an event celebrating free speech at New York City's The Box and commemorating adult filmaker John Stagliano's victory over federal obscenity charges (go here for our coverage of that spectacular waste of taxpayer dollars). The idea behind the event was to draw attention to Reason's ongoing work in defense of free expression and to call for a new free speech movement that reaches beyond traditional categories of left and right. What follows is a text written for the occasion by Michael C. Moynihan.

Living in an era that forces editorial cartoonists into witness protection, in a culture that barely bats an eye when the fed­eral government prosecutes "indecent" films, the free speech battles of the past seem almost quaint by comparison. Recall that in 1968, a jury huffed that I Am Curious: Yellow, a plodding Swedish film that succeeded in making sex unsexy, was "utterly without social value." The decision was soon overturned on appeal, the forecasted moral collapse failed to materialize, and Swedish embassies across Christendom were left unmo­lested. Andres Serrano's photograph "Piss Christ," the Brooklyn Museum's "Sensation" exhibit, Robert Mapplethorpe's bullwhip all provoked pickets, editorials, angry letters—and they all provoked debate.

In 1989, when Iran's theocracy suborned the murder of novelist Salman Rushdie for having written a supposedly blasphemous book, The Satanic Verses, only a handful of intellectuals, habitués of both left and right, attacked the author for being impolite to "a billion" religious adherents. Author Roald Dahl whimpered that "In a civilized world we all have a moral obligation to apply a modicum of censorship to our own work in order to reinforce this principle of free speech." Twenty years ago this was a shockingly contrarian sentiment, today it's depressingly de rigueur.

So here we are, a few dozen years after the Meese Commission and The Satanic Verses controversy. When South Park sarcastically shielded the image of Mohammad by forcing him to wear a bear costume, its creators had to beef up their security detail and those of us who expressed solidarity were contacted by concerned FBI agents. A mild mannered Danish newspaper editor went underground after publishing twelve anodyne caricatures of the Prophet, while dozens died, buildings burned, artists went into hiding, and one newspaper issued a groveling apology for having reprinted the im­ages. This year alone, a Swedish cartoonist that sketched Mohammad as a dog was physically attacked during a lecture and, the following week, two extremist attempted to burn his house down. The German public broadcast­er ZDF canceled an interview with a Danish cartoonist for fear of provoking extremists.

There is one upside to all of this backsliding on freedom of expression. It can be waved away as a cliché, but it's true that the more governments, fundamentalists, publishers, and broadcasters curtail the dissemination of information and images deemed "controversial" or "offensive," the greater interest the public will take. In November, the Los Angeles Times told the story of a Jordanian shop owner who trades in banned books. The most frequently requested titled, he told the Times, was the Rushdie's Satantic Verses, to which the bookseller mutters in Arabic, "Mamnoueh maqrou­bieh"—all that is forbidden is desired.

Opposition to censorship must be evenly applied, without special consid­eration to group feelings, without ideological exception. When hyperven­tilating activists demand that a planned mosque in Lower Manhattan be relocated out of "respect" (sound familiar?), something that would require government to infringe on the rights of free speech, religion, property, and assembly, it's incumbent upon those who believe in freedom to stand up to "anti-Islamist" bullies. George Orwell took up arms to fight fascism in Spain, then picked up the pen to defend British fascist leader Oswald Mos­ley against wartime detention. In other words, we don't get to choose our allies in the fight for free speech.

And the enemies of free speech understand that their ideas cannot compete in the marketplace. John Stagliano's films may appeal to "prurient interests" but they nevertheless sell by the pallet load, requiring that the full weight of the American legal system be brought to bear against him. If your reli­gion is being mocked and your country has no blasphemy or "hate speech" laws protecting your tender feelings, threats of violence are surprisingly effective.

Reason's tagline, the perfectly succinct and expository mission statement "free minds and free markets," references two ideas constantly under threat, and both ideas are limping, wounded after a decade of sustained assault. But tonight we gather to celebrate freedom of speech, which has had an espe­cially rough decade. And I ask you to remember the sage advice of writer Michael Kinsley who, during 2006 Danish cartoon affair, made a point that was once considered obvious: "The limits of free expression cannot be set by the sensitivities of people who don't believe in it."

Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor of Reason magazine.