Violence against those who create and disseminate controversial words and images is not new. But for the last couple of centuries, commitment to free speech has trumped fear of violence in Western liberal democracies. As late as 1989, Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses continued to be published and read in the face of a fatwa issued against its author and in the face of the murder and attempted murder of its translators and publishers.
Something changed in the new century. Perceived or real threats of violence are increasingly successful in suppressing speech. The attacks of September 2001 and subsequent bombings in Madrid and London brought fear of terrorist violence to the heart of liberal democracies. A new choice materialized between safety and freedom. In 2004, the opening night performance of Behzti, a play written by a British Sikh playwright, was canceled after violence erupted among protesters gathered around the theatre. In the same year, Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch film director, was murdered, ostensibly as a response to his film Submission. Hirsi Ali, who wrote the script and provided the voice-over for the film went into hiding.
These events catalyzed a series of articles, one of which, “The Face of Muhammad,” included twelve cartoons, some depicting Mohamed. These cartoons became the focus of a series of violent demonstrations organized in February 2006 in the Middle East. The world of free speech has never been the same since.
Threats of violence against words and images are not the sole province of religious extremists. As early as 2005 a politically controversial professor’s scheduled visit to Hamilton College was canceled due to alleged threats of violence. In 2008, SFAI closed an exhibition of work by Adel Abdessemed in response to violent threats against faculty members.
The possibility of violence has entered the imagination of the media, curators, publishers and the public at large generating more and more preemptive self-censorship: publisher Random House canceled the 2008 publication of Sherry Jones’ The Jewel of Medina because “it could incite acts of violence.” In 2009 Yale University decided remove all images of Mohammed from Jytte Klausen’s book, The Cartoons that Shook the World, an academic book commenting on the Danish cartoon controversy. The recent decision by Comedy Central to suppress an episode of South Park demonstrates how much legitimacy the argument that any threat of violence, real or imagined, should be reason enough to censor.
However, a liberal democracy depends on the principle that each person is entitled to hold and express his or her own beliefs. The failure to stand up for free expression emboldens those who would attack and undermine it. To paraphrase Ben Franklin, those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety will get neither liberty nor safety.