Commentary Forum: 05/19

Forum Center: Trouble in Texas

By Sarah Sidlow

Recently, in Garland, Texas, two gunmen opened fire. Their target: the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest, organized by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI).

According to AFDI President Pamela Geller, the contest was held as a demonstration of free speech.

“After [January’s] Charlie Hebdo massacre – and after the violent Muhammad cartoon riots a few years ago – there should have been Cartoon Exhibits all over the free world,” Geller wrote in a blog announcing the event, “to show the jihadists and their stealth allies in groups that are doing all they can to intimidate the West into abandoning the freedom of speech that we will not kowtow to violent intimidation. But there were no such exhibits. The free world was ready to submit. But we aren’t.”

For all intents and purposes, the event was an exercise in very poor taste, from two individuals – Geller and keynote speaker Geer Wilders – who are known for their adeptness at displaying poor taste, particularly of the anti-Muslim variety. However, the event was within the legal right of the organization to practice free speech. So was the protest that took place just outside the drawing contest.

The two gunmen who opened fire at the event were killed, and an unarmed security guard stationed at the event was wounded. As intended, the event was a media blitz.

The public, and the pundits, reacted with mixed feelings. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly criticized Geller for organizing such a provocative event. His colleague Greta Van Susteren said the contest “recklessly” put police lives in danger.

But presidential candidate and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) disagreed with his former Fox News associates.

“I don’t blame organizers of a free speech event for the fact that some radical Islamic savages decided to just go and mow down a bunch of people,” Huckabee said. “I find that just bizarre.”

Yet there are many who claim this contest was not about free speech at all.

“It is … clear that the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest … was not really about free speech,” wrote The New York Times editorial board. “It was an exercise in bigotry and hatred posing as a blow for freedom.”

And, the editorial board claims, there is a big difference between free speech and hate speech.

Yes, it is true that images ridiculing religion, however offensive, are protected free speech. But at what point do those images or similar acts become “hate speech” (a term which, though it seems to have existed as early as the 1920s, only seems to have become a widely-cited phrase in the jurisprudence of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries)? And is hate speech protected as free speech would be?

There are proponents of protecting hate speech as free speech, because, they argue, putting an end to any kind of uncomfortable text or images is a slippery slope to censorship in other areas. And besides, they ask, who is charged with judging the gray area between the two?

Yet others believe the line between hate speech and free speech is an important distinction.

CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, for example, cites the “Chaplinsky test” – a measure derived from by a 1942 Supreme Court decision stating the First Amendment doesn’t protect words “which, by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” For those opposed to protecting hate speech, it is not hard to interpret the Mohammad Art Exhibit as a breach of that measure.

Reach DCP Editor Sarah Sidlow at


Commentary Forum Question of the Week:

Should hate speech be protected under the First Amendment as free speech?

Commentary Left: Hate violence

Response By Ben Tomkins

I don’t like hate-speech laws. As a matter of fact, I don’t particularly care for any law that suggests I should be held responsible for something I say that results in someone else making a choice to react violently.

I say lots of things all the time. Many of them are mundane human exchanges, and occasionally I’ll say something pleasant; perhaps even nice.

For instance, I hope the people who blew up the cartoon contest in Texas died an extraordinarily painful and agonizing death. Never let it be said that I’m not a delightful young boy from the Midwest.

Of course, there are many things I say that could be taken as patently offensive by some small (or often large) group of people somewhere, that the general population might see as funny, innocuous or in bad taste. I think one would find that a 15-minute car ride with just about anybody would result in something being said that would piss off someone in the universe. It’s almost impossible to talk about anything important without infringing on a raw nerve ending extending into the public sphere.

What’s disturbing to me about the cartoon contest in Texas is the number of people who seem to be shifting from the position that it’s OK to be in bad taste, to one of grumbling the word “provoked” as if somehow there is such a thing at a cartoon contest. It is by definition a contest of humor and sarcasm, and it succeeded brilliantly in identifying exactly the kind of person who neither has a sense of the first, nor the constitution to understand the second.

What’s astonishing to me is that the word “provoke” is virtually stigmatum of abuse today.

Ladies: hands up. How many of you think that provoking a man verbally justifies him knocking your teeth out?

I’ll wait. The editor’s email is easy to find.

I will make this as plain and clear as I possibly can: Any person who holds a personal belief system – religious or not – that includes the concept of “I guess they had it coming,” is irrational and dangerous. It’s the kind of person who thinks that Larry Flynt had a bullet coming his way for peddling smut, and doesn’t flinch a little on the inside. I don’t trust people who say things like that, and I certainly wouldn’t want them on my jury.

What’s astonishing about the concept of hate speech laws, is that 99 percent of the time it’s the same people who are committing the acts of violence who are simultaneously claiming to be the victims of hate speech. Again, the cartoon contest is a classic example. A few Muslims are so offended by the hateful and socially destructive idea that people are deliberately drawing cartoons that mock their most closely held personal beliefs. It is so hateful and disparaging in fact, that they are unable to control their tempers and start killing people.

That’s where the confusion comes in for people who use the “I guess they had it coming” argument when they think something is in bad taste. Personally, I think that Islam is a myth, and people who want to install Sharia as the governing moral and legal code for society are sick. Ask yourself: Do I have something coming to me for saying that?

It’s certainly offensive to many Muslims. I also didn’t have to write it; I knew that before I said it, and I went ahead and did it anyway. Does that make it in bad taste?

Well, let’s start with asking ourselves whether or not there’s something worth considering in that statement. That’s the real problem with hate speech laws. They preemptively decide that an idea that is patently offensive to someone is therefore without any merit and should not be heard.

Well if it shouldn’t be heard, then I don’t think it should be thought either. After all, what is the point of freedom of thought if it doesn’t go hand-in-hand with the freedom to say it? Again, this is not to speak of good or bad taste, but if I have an opinion on something and we start making laws that say I can’t say it, then there’s no point in thinking in the first place.

An inexpressible idea is no idea at all.

Finally, if we are going to say that there exists such a thing as hate speech, may I be the one in charge of deciding for you what you may and may not say to people? I don’t want you deciding it for me, and if I was to put anyone in charge I’m the only candidate I find suitable for the job. I hope you feel the same, and if you don’t, then I’m happy to take the job.

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at

It’s not hate speech, it’s speech.

Response By David H. Landon

Let’s start our discussion with this basic premise: there is nothing in the Constitution that protects you from speech you find offensive. There is no exception in the First Amendment singling out hateful words from the absolute protection of that amendment. The reason is fairly straightforward. If people are only free to say things that are inoffensive to anyone who might possibly be listening, then they do not, in reality, have the freedom of speech. The result is that all speech, however offensive it may be to some, qualifies as protected free speech in the United States.

Some would justify their efforts to restrict speech arguing that freedom of speech is not the same as the freedom to offend. This thinking is both is simplistic and naïve. The lifeblood of a democracy is speech.  In fact, there is no freedom of speech if people cannot offend those who would put up racial barriers, deny women equal rights, persecute those following alternative lifestyles, and, the current problem of the day, commit violence against people who do not share their faith. The idea that if you say something that adversely affects the sensibilities of others, you are somehow taking away their liberty, is unsupportable in a democratic society whose very foundation is that freedom of speech is an inalienable right given to us from our creator. 

Roughly two weeks ago, we witnessed radical Islamist terrorists armed with AK-47s attempting to attack hundreds of people at an event in Garland, Texas that had the temerity to sponsor a Muhammad cartoon exhibit and contest. Claiming to be members of ISIS, they brought their violent response to the event, sponsored by Pam Geller and the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), and attempted to breach the event to kill those inside. These two Islamic Fundamentalists believed that creating an image of the Prophet, an exercise in free speech, was a crime and was punishable by death. Fortunately, a traffic officer working after hours as security for the event and armed only with a service pistol killed both men, who were wearing body armor and carrying assault rifles.

According to AFDI President Pamela Geller, the contest was held as a demonstration of free speech. In announcing the event Geller wrote, “After [January’s] Charlie Hebdo massacre – and after the violent Muhammad cartoon riots a few years ago – there should have been Cartoon Exhibits all over the free world, to show the jihadists and their stealth allies in groups that are doing all they can to intimidate the West into abandoning the freedom of speech that we will not kowtow to violent intimidation. But there were no such exhibits.”

Geller and her event has caused a huge stir and opened a dialogue as to whether the “Draw Mohammed Cartoon Contest” had gone too far. In fact, some in the media have been more critical of Geller than the jackasses that were hell-bent on killing as many people as their ammunition would allow. The Associated Press headline that ran on countless websites and newspapers across the country declared: “Activist: No regrets about cartoon contest ended by gunfire.” Geller, they argue, was intentionally provoking these jihadists. This contest was asking for a violent response and that’s what they got.

In Flemming Rose’s terrific book, “The Tyranny of Silence: How One Cartoon Ignited a Global Debate on the Future of Free Speech,” Rose correctly argues that tolerance properly understood is the ability to accept speech one dislikes. “When we focus on non-discrimination and equality, and aim to empower the aggrieved, tolerance is no longer about the ability to tolerate things we don’t like. It becomes the ability to keep quiet and refrain from saying things that others may dislike.” 

We must all make the case for free speech. And like Pam Geller, have the courage to loudly proclaim in no uncertain terms that there can never be a moral equivalency drawn between hurt feelings caused by speech and hurt caused by bullets and bombs.

In America, you may hear things that offend what you believe. This not only true for our Muslim friends, although they seem to be easy to find offense in what we would consider everyday encounters. (Arguing that a Bar-B-Que Pork restaurant should not be allowed to display a sign showing a smiling pig because it is offensive comes to mind.) Christians, Jews and Atheists will all from time to time express anger at something said or printed about their religion or belief system. So what! Get over it! Because of the country in which you live you have every right to defend your religion, political party, sexual proclivity, dietary preference, etc. with all of the passion and persuasiveness that you can muster.

I would direct my Muslim friends that doubt our sincerity in protecting the rights of all groups to say hurtful things and mock all religions to the 1977 Supreme Court case, The National Socialist Party of America v. the Village of Skokie. In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court properly ruled that the Nazis had the free speech right to rally in a town where one in six residents were Holocaust survivors. The Court overruled a lower court which would have barred those swastika-wearing, Nazi disciples from their provocative march through the streets of Skokie. Under our system of law even that speech was protected.

We must never reward violence with our silence.

David H. Landon is the former Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party Central Committee. He can be reached at

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