Garry Trudeau Punches Down

Last week cartoonist Garry Trudeau received the George Polk award for journalism. It's an award named in memory of a journalist murdered while covering a war. Trudeau used the opportunity to say that while murdering journalists is sub-optimal, journalists need to rethink offending people:

What free speech absolutists have failed to acknowledge is that because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must. Or that that group gives up the right to be outraged. They’re allowed to feel pain. Freedom should always be discussed within the context of responsibility. At some point free expression absolutism becomes childish and unserious. It becomes its own kind of fanaticism.

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A Few Questions For The New York Times About Depictions of Muhammad

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, some media outlets have published pictures of the cartoons that were terrorists' purported justification for slaughter. Some have not. Some have steered a bizarre middle course and shown people holding blurred cartoons.

The New York Times has elected not to publish the cartoons depicting Muhammad. The Times' public editor explained the decision as follows:

Mr. Baquet told me that he started out the day Wednesday convinced that The Times should publish the images, both because of their newsworthiness and out of a sense of solidarity with the slain journalists and the right of free expression.

He said he had spent “about half of my day” on the question, seeking out the views of senior editors and reaching out to reporters and editors in some of The Times’s international bureaus. They told him they would not feel endangered if The Times reproduced the images, he told me, but he remained concerned about staff safety.

“I sought out a lot of views, and I changed my mind twice,” he said. “It had to be my decision alone.”

Ultimately, he decided against it, he said, because he had to consider foremost the sensibilities of Times readers, especially its Muslim readers. To many of them, he said, depictions of the prophet Muhammad are sacrilegious; those that are meant to mock even more so. “We have a standard that is long held and that serves us well: that there is a line between gratuitous insult and satire. Most of these are gratuitous insult.”

“At what point does news value override our standards?” Mr. Baquet asked. “You would have to show the most incendiary images” from the newspaper; and that was something he deemed unacceptable.

I have questions for the Times in light of this policy.

1. Does the Times maintain a list of gratuitously offensive types of expression, and act based on that list, or does it address items on a case-by-case basis? If there is a list, is it public?

2. How big does a group have to be for the Times to accept its assertion that particular expression is offensive?

3. What percentage of a group must view expression as offensive for you to refrain from that expression? In other words, what portion of Muslims must find depictions of Muhammad to be gratuitously offensive for you to refrain from that expression?

4. Do you consider the degree of offense within a particular group? How do you measure that degree?

5. If there is dissent within a social or religious community about whether something is gratuitously offensive, how do you decide which faction to listen to?

6. Do you consider whether claims to offense may be politically motivated? For instance, if some American group (say, religious conservatives) asserted loudly that use of terms like "Happy Holidays" was gratuitously offensive, would you accept that, or would you ignore it on the basis that it was part of a "culture war?" If Americans claimed that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is gratuitously offensive because it is calculated to mock religion, how would you evaluate that claim?

7. Do you consider the recency of claims of gratuitous offense? If the claims arise relatively recently — when in the past the conduct was tolerated or did not occasion great statements of offense?

8. Does it make any difference to your decision that a particular group will react to what it sees as "gratuitous offense" with violence? Follow-up: if you do consider that, do you evaluate whether responding to threatened violence by not publishing something may encourage more threatened violence?

9. Has the New York Times ever decided not to run a religious image other than Muhammad on the theory that it would be sacrilegious or gratuitously offensive? Which one?

10. The Times has previously run anti-Semitic cartoons when they are in the news, "Piss Christ," pictures of a painting of the Virgin Mary smeared with dung, and pictures of Westboro Baptist protesters in vivid anti-gay shirts. Is it the Times' position that those decisions can be reconciled with this one, or is this a change in policy? If it is a change in policy, is it intended as an institutional one, or one that just remains during the tenure of a particular editor?

11. Please consider the cover of the new post-massacre Charlie Hebdo:

hebdo

Is this picture, leaving offense aside, newsworthy? If so, will you weigh that newsworthiness against the offense you believe it will give, or apply a categorical ban? Do you believe that words can adequately convey the literal, figurative, and emotive impact? If someone asserts that the picture is offensive not just as a depiction, but as a caricature, can your readers evaluate that claim without looking at the picture?

12. Are there particular staffers at the Times who specialize in evaluating and advising about degrees of offense? How are they trained?

13. Do you have a plan for what to do if a group expands its assertions about what is offensive? For instance, suppose that some Muslims begin to assert — vociferously — that depictions of all those it counts as prophets (including Jesus) are offensive and must be avoided, how would you evaluate that claim?

14. There are, as you know, different groups within Islam. What if a reform group began encouraging depictions of Muhammad as a signifier of reform, asserting that the contrary interpretation is false, and that those who attack depictions are wrong about Islam? How would you decide which faction to avoid offending?

15. Let's say some blogger starts a trend of using this emoticon: @[–<. It is widely understood that the emoticon is meant by its users to depict Muhammad, in an effort to illustrate that bans on depictions are unprincipled and can easily be made ridiculous. Would you run the emoticon? Or would you just describe it? How would you decide? 16. Imagine that a segment of Muslims begins to assert that it is sacrilegious to print Muhammad's name without a ṣalawāt like "pbuh." Are there conditions that would arise that would lead you to do so? What are those conditions? Are violence, or threats of violence, one of them? I'm just asking questions.

Mo The Rutabaga Isn't Safe In The U.S., Either

I've been pretty tough on the United Kingdom recently, what with them arresting people for burning poppies and trying to make Twitter free of offense and threatening U.S. websites and thus-and-such.

But it's only fair to point out that it's not necessarily safe to carry around my rutabaga named Mo here in the United States, either. Courtesy of commenter Trebuchet and Ed Brayton, I discovered Eugene Volokh's testimony to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which offers numerous examples of embarrassing attempts by American academics to suppress speech. They don't call it blasphemy, but they might as well. Volokh's conclusion is apt:

As I said at the outset, I firmly support the free speech, religious freedom, and property rights of Muslims. My concern is simply that all speakers and religious observers be protected, whether they are Muslim or non-Muslim, or pro-Islam or anti-Islam. Nor does this need to be difficult: The government should tell Muslims (as it tells other groups), “We respect you and your rights, and we will defend you and your rights from violence and government oppression, but if you find certain kinds of speech offensive you should respond with speech of your own; we cannot respond by trying to suppress such speech.”

But the government ought not try to define political and religious speech as “discrimination” or “harassment,” and then suppress it in the name of civil rights. Nor should the government conclude that the speech is stripped of protection because it is supposedly constitutes “hate speech”; the Supreme Court’s precedents solidly reject the view that there is a “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment. Nor should it surrender to the threat of violence, a course of action that only encourages more such threats in the future. Instead, the government should protect the civil rights of all, regardless of their religion or ideology.

Some foreign countries, to be sure, do indeed seem to prohibit speech that is perceived as blasphemy or undue criticism of religion — not just Islam but also, for instance, Christianity: Consider, just over the last two years, foreign incidents involving Jesus Christ Superstar, a parody of the venerated Greek Orthodox monk Elder Paisios, mockery of the Bible, and a painting of Jesus with a Mickey Mouse head. But in America, such speech is of course fully protected against government suppression. That must remain so, whatever religion is targeted.

Quite right.

A Year of Blasphemy

The incendiary film ""The Innocence of Muslims" was merely an unconvincing pretext for a terrorist attack, not the true cause of the attack. Yet the film has spurred new discussions of American free speech exceptionalism, and led some to question whether we should hew to the First Amendment in the face of worldwide demands for an international ban on blasphemy.

Eric Posner wrote in Slate that we ought to consider that other societies believe that "free speech must yield to other values and the need for order." Anthea Butler, a professor at Penn, defended calls for the arrest of the man who made the film, suggesting that it had "inflamed" people across the globe, putting Americans at risk. Garrett Epps wrote that blasphemy is not the "essence of free speech" and that other nations understand freedom differently than we do. Professor Peter Spiro reacted to the film by suggesting that "international norms" about hate speech should prevail over our relatively absolutist free speech values.

We should address such views, not ignore them. But as we consider them — as we evaluate whether anti-blasphemy laws will ever be consistent with the modern American values embodied in our First Amendment precedents — we should examine what the competing values truly are. What are the "other values" which other societies believe outweigh free speech? What sorts of things "inflame" people in those societies? If other societies understand free expression differently than we do, how do they understand it? What "international norms" are emerging on blasphemy?

I decided to try to answer those questions by looking at how the nations of the world have treated blasphemy during one year: October 2011 through September 2012. In other words, I decided to examine how one year reflected the competing values concerning free speech and blasphemy.

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This is my rutabaga. His Name is Mo.

Don't hate him because he's beautiful.

There are many like him, but he is mine. He has never let me down, and in sharp contrast to the lot of you, he never will. I mean, until he rots.

I would like to take Mo on a trip. It's been 21 years since I lived in England; I thought I could take him there. But I have some concerns — and I'm not just talking about the TSA violating him.

In fact, I'm worried that I might be banned from some places in England if I bring Mo.

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