Protect all speech, all the time

Published 9:52 am Thursday, May 14, 2015

Islamic terrorists massacre 12 employees of Charlie Hedbo, a magazine in Paris that satirized the Islamic prophet, and the Western world rises up to defend freedom of expression. The cartoons of Muhammad were deliberately calculated to offend Muslims, but gosh darn it, if you have to choose between free speech and terrorists, then “Je suis Charlie.”

Islamic terrorists unsuccessfully attempt a similar attack in Garland, Texas, where activists deliberately try to offend with a Muhammad cartoon contest, and suddenly everyone is happy to blame those who provoked the attack. No less than the editorial board of The New York Times proclaims that what was being practiced in Garland was really “hate speech.”

You’re either for free speech, or you’re for censorship. And if you’re not for freedom of expression by those whose opinions you find offensive, then what you’re really for is freedom of self-expression and not the angry dinner-table discussion that is democracy. As much as this pains me, the First Amendment applies to everyone, even folks like Pam Geller.

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Geller is what could loosely be called the “brains” behind the Garland cartoon contest. She knew what she was doing. In staging a contest to draw cartoons of Muhammad, she was not just deliberately offending the religious views of Muslims. She was daring Islamic terrorists to take their best shot.

“I knew what the stakes were when I started planning the cartoon contest. But it had to be done,” she said afterward. “The jihadis had to be shown that at least some Americans will not bow to violent intimidation.”

It’s hard not to sympathize with the poor mayor of Garland, who offered to pour Ms. Geller a tall glass of Shut The Hell Up juice. “Certainly in hindsight, we as a community would be better off if she hadn’t [held it in Garland],” the mayor said. “Her actions put my police officers, my citizens and others at risk. Her program invited an incendiary reaction. She picked my community, which does not support in any shape, passion or form, her ideology.”

It’s that last sentence that made me blink. If a particular ideology is not shared by a community does it enjoy lesser protection from the First Amendment? If Robert Mapplethorpe could turn obscenities with a crucifix into constitutionally protected art, then is an offensive cartoon any less worthy of protection because terrorists will try to kill you for drawing it? And if someone is willing to kill to silence an opinion, then isn’t protecting that offensive expression the most patriotic thing to do?

To be sure, I do not relish the idea of wannabe jihadis rolling around Texas in a Chevrolet looking for people to shoot, but when a single cop guarding a cartoon contest can put down a terrorist attack, maybe the Islamic State has picked on the wrong state. There are enough guns in Texas for every man, woman, and child to have at least two. The only danger Texas faces from entry-level terrorists is if everyone is reloading at the same time.

Maybe if the terrorists had killed some cartoonists in Texas as they did in France we’d see this more as an attack on our freedoms than just another example of conservatives gone wild.

Maybe if the targets seemed less gleeful at inciting a terrorist attack in the middle of an otherwise peaceful community for their own self-aggrandizement we might find them more sympathetic.

But there’s no “maybe” about this: If someone would attack Geller for saying the stupid things she says, then it’s up to all of us to defend her right to do so. She might be an unsightly pimple on the body politic who deliberately mocks what some hold sacred to make a juvenile political point and draw attention to herself, but she’s also an American.

The problem with limiting free speech protections to smart people of good judgment is that it’s supposed to apply to Americans. We’re fat and lazy and read at a 7th-grade level. If the Bill of Rights only applied to the worthy among us, it would only protect our mothers and not all of them.

I’m a First Amendment kinda guy. Je suis Pam Geller.


Jason Stanford is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, a Democratic consultant and a Truman National Security Project partner. You can email him at and follow him on Twitter @JasStanford.