Free-speech spinelessness is prevalent in Arkansas — and such spinelessness is an especially notable disability when it’s discovered in journalists. So I was sad to observe, a few days ago, the Arkansas Times’s demonstration of something less than full commitment to the freedoms that our Founders enshrined in the First Amendment.
Take a look at the Times’s recent story on the Muhammad cartoon controversy in Marion County. The Times’s caption, attached to the picture of the billboard depicting Muhammad, says it all: “FREE SPEECH, HATE SPEECH.”
The Times’s story goes on to attribute qualities to the billboard that do not, in fact, exist: Benjamin Hardy, the piece’s author, ridicules the billboard’s designers, alleging that they “presumably” intended Muhammad to be “snarling” in an “over-the-top accent.” He then describes the event that precipitated the billboard as a “Draw Muhammad contest” that “took a violent turn.” That isn’t journalism, just euphemism: it is hardly persnickety to note that it wasn’t the contest that “took a violent turn.” More precisely, two Muslim radicals attempted to murder some of the contestants there.
Besides labeling the billboard as “hate speech,” the Times’s caption also calls it “provocative.” In this context, that is a troublesome suggestion. I guess if you’re provoking other people, you bear some responsibility for their response, huh? Sometimes we hear the word “provocative” being used to describe, for instance, an attractive woman in revealing clothes. When bad things happen to people who dress provocatively, we do not respect the excuse of “But the way she was dressed, she was really asking for it!” I hope that, in his better moments, Hardy wouldn’t take that excuse seriously either.
Ironically, the Arkansas Times questions the group behind this ad (Pamela Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative) by alluding to their “supposed ‘free speech’ agenda.” Supposed? I don’t see any reason to question their commitment to free speech — but, at this point, we have pretty strong reasons to question the free-speech commitment of the Arkansas Times.
Mysteriously, the Arkansas Times has had no qualms about invoking free speech in other contexts. When Senator Jason Rapert attacked the Conway Pride Parade for taking place on a Sunday, the Times shot back, “In Rapert’s view, people with ideas that he rejects should forfeit their First Amendment rights on Sunday.”
I admit to a grudging admiration for Rapert here: at least he is honest that his dedication to Biblical values is in some tension with his dedication to the First Amendment. But I don’t relish the obvious inference about the Arkansas Times — namely, it will defend the expression it likes (the Conway Pride Parade) on First Amendment grounds, but will then suggest that the expression it doesn’t like (drawing pictures of Muhammad) is out of bounds and “hate speech.” Maybe it’s better just to say that the Times’s inconsistency here is (for lack of a better word) awfully provocative.
I hope that the journalists over at the Arkansas Times will realize someday that, no matter how distasteful they believe the American Freedom Defense Initiative is, it gets the benefit of the First Amendment too. With respect to ownership of First Amendment liberties, that organization is no different from the gay pride marchers valorized by the Times and criticized by Rapert. All of us should have a right to speak freely, regardless of disagreement with the content of our speech. You can’t really qualify as a defender of the First Amendment when you support expression you like, but call expression that you don’t like “hate speech.”
When it comes to free speech, the content of the speech is unimportant (assuming we ignore some irrelevant exceptions here, such as true threats and so forth.) What’s important is whether people can express themselves without the fear of being murdered or shut down by the government. You are entitled to your own personal view; you are absolutely allowed to find Muhammad cartoons, the Conway Pride Parade, or anything else objectionable. But if you value free speech, you should be unreserved in your support of the right of the people to peaceful expression. In Arkansas — and everywhere — the battle to protect freedom of speech needs more than fair-weather allies.