“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free speech exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; …” So says the First Amendment of the Constitution. As most of us learned in high school history, the First Amendment is an integral part of the Bill of Rights. The Founding Fathers felt so strongly about the Bill of Rights that the Constitution would not have been approved and adopted without it.
It is very important to understand that the right of free speech is an unassailable right. It is not limited only to speech or actions that are not offensive. It is not a right that can be granted or withheld at the whim of one group or another, even the government. It also encompasses actions that most Americans would find very offensive and objectionable, such as, for example, burning the flag. In 1989 the Supreme Court reversed the conviction of a Texas man who had been incarcerated for burning the flag. Justice William Brennan, speaking for the majority, opined, in part, “if there is a bedrock principle underlying the first amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea offensive or disagreeable.” The courts have consistently upheld this principle in subsequent cases.
And so, we come to the recent events in Garland, Texas. I’m sure you have all seen the news reports. Two Islamic terrorists attacked a “draw Muhammed” cartoon contest billed as the inaugural “Muhammed Art Exhibit and Contest,” which featured cartoons of the Prophet and offered a $10,000 prize for the winner. Their intent was to make a statement by slaughtering the approximately 200 innocent attendees a la Charley Hebdo. Luckily, a traffic cop, whom the organizers had hired as part of enhanced security, was alert and managed to kill both of them before they were able to harm anyone.
ISIS has since claimed responsibility. At this point, it seems likely that the perpetrators were not members of ISIS per se, but they were seeking to join, and the attack was some sort of audition. (The ISIS leadership has encouraged homegrown terrorists to commit acts of violence whenever and wherever they can.) This is supported by the fact that one of the perpetrators posted a tweet moments before the attack pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi, ISIS’ leader and stating “#texasattack: May Allah accept us as mujahideen.”
To me, the central issue in this case is not whether the organizers of the Mohammed cartoon contest were right or wrong, or whether or not they were “smart” to hold that type of potentially provocative contest. It is true that Pamela Geller, the primary organizer of the event has a reputation for being blatantly and flamboyantly anti-Muslim. She labeled the attack a “war on free speech.” That said, whether or not you subscribe to her views is beside the point.
Those who criticize the organizers for “inciting” or “baiting” radical Muslims are missing the point. The overriding, unassailable point is that the constitution gives them the right to do it. If anyone has objections the proper response would have been to demonstrate peacefully outside the building, like normal people. Let the organizers have their say; you have your say; and let every person decide for himself. That’s the way we usually do it in America, and that is how it should have been done in this case.
Critics of the organizers who maintain that the event should have been cancelled, and there have been many from print journalists to MSNBC’s Dorian Warren, Chris Matthews and “Morning Joe” to even Bill O’Reilly, (When was the last time they were ever in agreement on anything?) should realize they are advocating embarking on a slippery slope. On the other hand, Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick understand the situation. Abbott labeled the attack a “heinous crime that struck at the heart of the First Amendment.” Patrick added that “if Americans are threatened to be killed for their words and actions, no matter how offensive, then freedom, itself, is lost and with it America is lost.” (Perhaps, a bit of hyperbole, but, then again, Mr. Patrick is a politician.)
How far should we, as a society, go to appease violent radicals? Should we not invite anti-Muslims to lecture at universities? Should we have permitted Muslims to build a mosque at the site of 9/11? Or, perhaps, news commentators should vet their opinion pieces with CAIR beforehand. Where would it end? Fear of retaliation should not be allowed to muzzle free speech.
Blaming the organizers is akin to blaming a rape victim for wearing a short, sexy skirt that may have “incited” or tempted” the rapist. As Star Trek’s Mr. Spock would have said: “It is not logical.” I would add it is un-American. Whose country is it anyway?