Free Speech Under Fire; Two Gunmen Killed at Texas "Draw Mohammed" Contest

Free speech is never a justification for violence - or submitting to the thug's veto.



At a "Draw Mohammed" contest held yesterday in Garland, Texas, two gunmen who opened fire on the crowd were killed:

The attackers drove up and opened fire on the security guard as the event was finishing up about 7 p.m. (8 p.m. ET), said Joe Harn, a spokesman for the Garland police.

Officers at the heavily-policed event returned fire, killing the men.

The suspects' bodies remained at the scene because investigators were concerned there could be a bomb in their car. A bomb squad robot was checking the vehicle, Harn said.

A police officer was also wounded.

More here.

The event was organized by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, known for their outspoken views on jihadism and Islam, and the similarly controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders was one of the main draws (go here for an announcement of the contest). According to a 2013 Daily Beast article, Geller and Spencer have a mixed record at best of defending free speech when it comes to views they find appalling and dangerous.

It's not immediately clear who was behind the attack (one suspected gunman's Twitter account has been removed), despite claims that it was connected to the Islamic State.

Breitbart.com has livestream of the event, an interview with Geller, and much more.

Twitter was full of the event and arguments over the shooting, Geller's reputation for inflaming opinions, and more, including this from a New York Times' foreign correspondent:

It's not fully clear to me that there is an "aside" beyond "free speech," but Reason of course hosted a similar contest back in 2010 after violence in the wake of the Jyllands-Posten controversy and American cartoonist Mollie Norris faced death threats for suggesting such a thing.

Why did we? As I wrote at the time:

There comes a point in any society's existence where it must ultimately, to paraphrase Martin Luther (who himself was more than happy to see opponents put to death), dig in its heels and say here we stand, we will do no other. We don't need to be perfectly consistent philosophically or historically or theologically to assert what is special and unique not just about the United States, with its bizarre and wonderful articulation of the First Amendment, but the greater classical liberal project comprising not just the "West" (whatever that is) but human beings in whatever town, country, or planet they inhabit. And at the heart of the liberal project is ultimately a recognition that individuals, for no other reason than that they exist, have rights to continue to exist. Embedded in all that is the right to expression. No one has a right to an audience or even to a sympathetic hearing, much less an engaged audience. But no one should be beaten or killed or imprisoned simply for speaking their mind or praying to one god as opposed to the other or none at all or getting on with the small business of living their life in peaceful fashion. If we cannot or will not defend that principle with a full throat, then we deserve to choke on whatever jihadists of all stripes can force down our throats.

More on the contest here.

The recent contest comes in the wake of the murder of staffers at Charlie Hebdo, the French magazine routinely and wrongly attacked as racist and reactionary (read Matt Welch on that and on American writers denouncing PEN giving an award to the writers, editors, and illustrated shot to death by Islamic radicals). Much of the commentary over this latest shooting will doubtless revolve the odiousness of Pamela Geller," her track record of "provocations," and the like.

That is simply besides the much larger and more important point that free speech is free speech and should never be challenged by the thug's veto or bullets or violence. The United States Constitution doesn't simply enshrine free speech in the First Amendment but also religious freedom and freedom of assembly. These things are all intertwined and an attack on one is an attack on the others. 

Allowing infringements on any of that—whether out of sensitivity, fear, or distaste with particular groups (whether Charlie Hebdo or Geller)—is not a small thing and it's never a final thing, either. Giving in to violent reprisals doesn't end them, it only sets the stage for the next choking down of free expression and the openness of society.

In the wake of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, President Obama announced that "the future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam," while blaming the death of a U.S. ambassador and soldiers on a YouTube video that supposedly created a spontaneous demonstration against the country that had recently helped liberate Libya from a dictator. The president was wrong then and those who say we must rein in free speech are wrong now. The threats to speech are not simply emanating from terrorists who pledge allegiance to a demented form of Islamic theocracy. They are everywhere throughout America today and despite an ever-increasing number of platforms from which to speak, the plain fact is that "incursions against free speech and a truly unregulated marketplace of ideas" are also flourishing.

The future must belong to those who recognize a categorical difference between free expression and violent reprisals. The future must belong to those who affirm speech over silence and freedom over fear, regardless of who is speaking and who is offended.