Je suis Garland?

The organizers of the Muhammad drawing contest were provocateurs. So were the editors of Charlie Hebdo. What's the difference?

Street art in London.
(Image credit: (REUTERS/Luke MacGregor))

In Garland, Texas, several conservatives hosted a Prophet Muhammad drawing contest that literally drew the fire of two gunmen. In the aftermath of the tragic violence, much of the left has been quick to focus the blame on the conservatives behind the event for giving such egregious offense, not the extremists who took so much offense that they were moved to shoot.

I think we can all agree that these drawing contest organizers were provocateurs. They probably intended to offend. But the same could be said of the editors of Charlie Hebdo — and much of the West was downright eager to defend the free-speech rights of that latter group. What's the difference? Here's the thing: It's vanishingly small.

Four months ago, Islamist extremists sent jolts of terror through Europe with a shooting massacre at the Paris editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine that lampooned political, cultural, and religious figures — including cartoonish and deliberately provocative representations of the Prophet Muhammad. The immediate reaction to the atrocity was unity around the concept of free speech. Many had criticized Charlie Hebdo for its cartoons in the past, but still understood that the shootings attacked something much more fundamental than whether the magazine's raunchy caricatures of a revered religious figure crossed some sort of line. Rallies in Paris spread around the world, and people embraced the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag on Twitter, both as a memorial to those murdered and as solidarity in defense of liberty.

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Of course, not everyone agreed. A few weeks after the shootings, an ombudsman for NPR insisted that free speech doesn't include the right to insult religions or their historical figures. "I do not know if American courts would find much of what Charlie Hebdo does to be hate speech unprotected by the Constitution," wrote outgoing public editor Edward Schumacher-Matos, "but I know — hope? — that most Americans would."

It doesn't take much searching to know that the Constitution in fact does protect speech that criticizes entire religions, their prophets, and all of their claims. In fact, there isn't any exception in First Amendment jurisprudence for "hate speech" at all, in part because it's such a nebulous and subjective term.

More recently, Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau accused Charlie Hebdo of "wander[ing] into the realm of hate speech" against "a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons[.]" Similarly, when the group PEN America wanted to honor the murdered editors of Charlie Hebdo, six members refused to participate because of the "cultural intolerance" of the magazine's editors, not to mention the "cultural arrogance of the French nation," the latter point made explicitly by novelist Peter Carey, one of the refuseniks.

No one would suggest that the satirical magazine was above criticism. But this misses the point entirely. The editors of Charlie Hebdo were murdered for their commitment to free speech. People who write uncontroversial opinions and draw pictures of pretty flowers aren't usually found on the front lines of the free speech fight. PEN America honored Charlie Hebdo for that commitment to fearless free speech — and hoped to send a message to those who would silence speech at the point of a gun or the blast radius of a bomb.

As the organizers stated in their response, no one has to "endorse the content of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons in order to affirm the importance" of satire and free speech. Novelist Salman Rushdie, a former PEN president and the target of an Iranian fatwa for The Satanic Verses, put it more succinctly. "If PEN as a free speech organization can't defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name."

Still, the overwhelming response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre was to support free speech. Sadly, that focus on the higher goal of free speech didn't hold up as well this week after the shooting in Garland, Texas.

A group of prominent and provocative critics of radical Islam — some on the left go so far as to call these conservatives a "hate group" — put together an event to sponsor cartoonists to draw satirical art featuring images of Muhammed. A kind of crowdsourced Charlie Hebdo, if you will. The event certainly may not have appealed to many on the basis of taste. Indeed, it's easy to see how many people would find it terribly offensive. Still, the event drew 300 participants, many of whom surely wanted to make a point about free speech — and two would-be assassins who wanted to make a very different point about it. A security guard hired to protect the event killed both shooters, while taking a bullet himself.

The issue here should have been the shooting — not the provocative activists who were targeted by the now-deceased shooters. Instead, the media focused its attention mainly on Pamela Geller and Geert Wilders, two of the organizers, for their provocation of violence — as if drawing cartoons, no matter how offensive or hateful, amounted to violence or threats of such.

New York Times foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi — who focuses on Islamic extremism — tweeted this in the immediate aftermath:

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Isn't the better question why someone would shoot at a drawing contest? Shouldn't those who make their living in the First Amendment arena ask that first, and not be so quick to put "free speech aside"? Besides, The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg asked, "Who gets to define provocative? … If you don't like Muhammad cartoon contests, you can hold rallies, give impassioned speeches, write letters and op-eds."

In other words, free speech becomes the antidote for what people might consider "bad" speech. Protecting the innate human right to question and proclaim is a much higher priority than clucking tongues at those assaulted and killed for doing just that. If we cannot rise to the defense of those who use speech instead of violence to make their point, and instead shrug at violence as an understandable consequence of controversial speech, then we will have incentivized violence and surrendered our own right to speak out against it.