TYRRELL: A broad front for free speech

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Why are conservatives and liberals not united in defending free speech? The estimable Bret Stephens in his Wall Street Journal column this week raises the question and suggests conservatives and liberals give the matter some thought.

What has provoked him is the plight of the Dutch politician, Geert Wilders, who has just been denied entrance to the United Kingdom on the grounds he is an “undesirable person.” What rendered him so is his documentary, “Fitna,” that lifts lines from the Koran and cites them as the sacred justification for acts of Islamic terror. Mr. Wilders is also being prosecuted for “hate speech” in the Netherlands on account of “Fitna.” Supposedly his documentary offended the religious sensibilities of Muslims, which is enough to get a work of intellectual expression banned in Europe.

Mr. Stephens points out that it has been precisely 20 years since Andres Serrano dunked a crucifix in a glass of urine, photographed the sacrilege and called it art. The National Endowment for the Arts awarded him $15,000 for his creativity. Frankly, I think he might have as profitably applied for a grant at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Ga. In fact, with the Obama administration now in power I suggest Mr. Serrano give it a try, assuming he has not passed on from some horrible disease.

Mr. Stephens also points out that 20 years ago Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini placed a fatwa on the head of the celebrated left-wing author Salman Rushdie for his book “The Satanic Verses,” which, according to the art critic Khomeini, blasphemed Islam. This was one of the rare instances when the ayatollah and I were in agreement. I too found the book appalling, though I would not issue a fatwa even if I were certified as an official fatwa installer. A fatwa could get a person killed. I settled on giving Rushdie the J. Gordon Coogler Award for the “Worst Book of the Year.”

Mr. Rushdie, who publicly traduced British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, gladly accepted the bodyguards she gave him, though he never showed up for the awards ceremony.

Things have changed in the United Kingdom. Now the Labor Party has replaced Margaret Thatcher’s Tories, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown denied Mr. Wilders entry into the country. For my part, I actually watched “Fitna” in the comfort of New York City a few months back and found more artistic merit in the documentary than in either of the works by Mr. Serrano or Mr. Rushdie.

Moreover, to my surprise, Mr. Wilders is not a wild man or a rustic but a gentleman. He deserves to have his speech protected, as did Mr. Serrano and Mr. Rushdie, though in Mr. Serrano’s case I do not see why the American taxpayer had to support his afflatus.

No thoughtful conservative I know called for either Mr. Serrano or Mr. Rushdie to be banned. We objected to paying for Mr. Serrano, but denying him the coverage of the First Amendment was against our commitment to freedom of speech. During the Serrano controversy liberals pretty much defended his First Amendment rights and went further insisting that the National Endowment for the Arts was justified and perhaps even enlightened in funding him.

So are the liberals defending Mr. Wilders today? Are they alarmed by Europe’s suppression of free speech? This is an issue on which both conservatives and liberals should agree.

What is called “hate speech” is, in a free society, as equal to First Amendment protection as disgusting speech or blasphemy - though presumably there are places where hate speech ought not to be tolerated, for instance grammar schools and high schools. There children and young people are not yet full citizens. They are immature and their ideas are not fully developed. Their outburst would be disruptive. Where the students are adults, say at universities, the First Amendment should hold.

Actually I fear liberals will not join Mr. Stephens and me in defending Mr. Wilders’ rights or even the rights of Mr. Rushdie. My explanation for this is not a happy one. In recent years it seems to me American liberals and conservatives do not want to be in agreement. They want to be at war with each other.

This is particularly true of liberals. On the First Amendment they find qualifiers to part company from libertarian conservatives. We see it in the liberals’ support of speech codes at universities. There all advocates of free speech allowed communists to teach and to stir up revolution even during the Cold War. Now free expression is policed by speech codes, lest someone offend touchy ethnics or religious people, preferably non-Western religious people. Mr. Serrano never was accused of “hate crime.”

Free speech is a tricky issue once we begin to limit it. People can be very subjective about what is protected speech. Consider Mr. Wilders. For all his talk of free speech, he calls the Koran a “fascist book.” He equates it with Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and would ban it.

Mr. Wilders is free to call the Koran anything he wants to call it. Yet he cannot ban it, not in the United States - possibly in Europe, but not in the Land of the Free.

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is the founder and editor in chief of the American Spectator and an adjunct scholar at the Hudson Institute.

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