The Suicide of
the Free Press
by Robert Spencer
As the Muhammad movie riots continue to roil the world, prominent Muslim leaders in the U.S. and elsewhere are calling for restrictions on the freedom of speech, including the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, and the Muslim Brotherhood – and in the U.S., Sheikh Husham al-Husainy of the Karbalaa Islamic Education Center in Dearborn, Michigan and Imam Mohammad Qatanani of the Islamic Center of Passaic County, New Jersey. Given Sharia prohibitions on free speech, that is to be expected. What is more surprising – or should be more surprising, if the free press were doing its job -- is the alacrity with which the mainstream media has echoed these calls for self-censorship and submission to Islamic blasphemy laws.
In the wake of the worldwide Muhammad movie riots, the Los Angeles Times, for example, published its second op-ed in four weeks calling for restrictions on the freedom of speech. To be sure, the second piece, by Sarah Chayes of the Carnegie Endowment, was far more sophisticated and well reasoned than the crude call for censorship of the first, which was written by the thuggish Nathan Lean. Where Lean had ham-fistedly smeared and demonized those whose speech he hates and then called for them to be silenced, First Amendment be damned, Chayes argued on the basis of a fine distinction that already exists within American free speech law: “U.S. law makes a distinction between speech that is simply offensive and speech that is deliberately tailored to put lives and property at immediate risk.”
Indeed, but as the Wall Street Journal pointed out, the legal distinction to which Chayes was referring was formulated in response to the Ku Klux Klan’s advocacy of violence, and thus did not apply to the Muhammad movie filmmakers, who called for no violence from anyone. The Klan, said the WSJ, “advocated (but did not incite) violence on the part of their own supporters in order to promote their cause of racial supremacy. By contrast, the filmmakers provoked a violent reaction from the other side. To prosecute them would be analogous to punishing civil rights activists for inciting white supremacists to commit violent or lawless acts.”
A point well taken. But the larger question is, why is the Los Angeles Times coming down on the side of restrictions on the freedom of speech in the first place? Are they not aware that such restrictions, if implemented, can and probably will be used against them? While the Los Angeles Times editors are no doubt serene in their certainty that they will never print anything that will insult Islam or Muslims, there could all too easily come a time when a governing authority deems something they have published to be “hateful” or even “deliberately tailored to put lives and property at immediate risk,” and – if free speech by then has been restricted – that will be the end of the Times as an outpost of the free press.
Can the Times’ editors, and those at other mainstream media that have written favorably about free speech restrictions in the wake of the recent Muslim riots, and those who have written harshly about Pamela Geller’s pro-Israel and Islamorealism ad campaigns, really be so short-sighted? Or is it that they are so consumed by hatred for voices on the Right that they will do whatever it takes to silence them, even defang the First Amendment? Or is it that today’s mainstream journalists share the Left’s taste for authoritarianism and thus never really liked or appreciated the concept of free speech in the first place?
Whatever the case may be, the foes of free speech may see their fondest wishes come true, and not very long from now, either. In that event, they will learn firsthand the truth of Thomas Jefferson’s adage: “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.” It may be that the remarkably suicidal free press of today will discover a taste for their First Amendment rights only when they have lost them. Some may even realize at that point that they have no one to blame but themselves (there will be no more “Islamophobes” for them to blame), and that the bad old world of robust discussion, debate and dissent really wasn’t all that bad after all. But by then it will be too late.
Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch and author of the New York Times bestsellers The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and The Truth About Muhammad. His latest book is Did Muhammad Exist?.