Press freedom, without any “buts”

It took 24 hours for the State Department to figure out that the press can’t be a little bit unfree. Better late than never.

A cartoon showing the Prophet Muhammed with a bomb as a turban was certain to offend Muslims. No doubt it was designed to do so.

Insulting what other people hold to be sacred is bad manners. (That’s not the same as criticizing their religious beliefs or religious leaders. Making rude remarks about Pat Robertson or the Pope or creationism is just good clean fun; while doing the same about Jesus of Nazareth or Krishna is out of line. In this respect, Islamic belief puts Muhammed in a category with Jesus rather than one with, say, Moses; while emphatically not considered divine in any respect, the Prophet is taken to be above criticism.)

Period. New paragraph.

In free societies, newspapers print what they want to print, short of libel or incitation. Sometimes they print stupid and offensive things. It is legitimate to try to damage them commercially for doing so, for example by asking for a boycott of the newspaper itself or of its advertisers. It is not legitimate to try to restrict what can be published by law, or to demand that other countries do so.

No, I don’t expect Muslims who live in unfree societies to understand this point, or to sympathize with it if they do understand it. That may cause them to have less favorable opinions of places where press freedom is allowed, and some of those unfavorable opinions may find violent expression. That’s regrettable, but not preventable except at an unacceptable cost.

(And no, blasphemy is not like “hate speech.” I’m not sure where I come down on “hate speech” laws as a policy matter, but it seems to me their principle is no different from the principle behind libel laws. Publishing false and defamatory material about a group &#8212 Muslims or African-Americans or Jews or atheists &#8212 can damage members of that group, just as publishing false and defamatory material about an individual can damage that individual.)

I’m more than disappointed to learn that the U.S. State Department can’t get this simple set of principles straight.

Friday, February 3, 2006; 12:22 PM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Washington on Friday condemned caricatures in European newspapers of the Prophet Mohammad, siding with Muslims who are outraged that the publications put press freedom over respect for religion.

By inserting itself into a dispute that has become a lightning rod for anti-European sentiment across the Muslim world, the United States could help its own battered image among Muslims.

“These cartoons are indeed offensive to the belief of Muslims,” State Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper said in answer to a question. “We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press and expression but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable.”

“We call for tolerance and respect for all communities for their religious beliefs and practices,” he added.

No, no, no, no, no! Any statement that starts “We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press” and then adds the word “but” does not, in fact, fully recognize or respect the freedom of the press. Freedom of the press is meaningless if it includes only the right of the press to publish material of which the authorities approve.

The good news is that the Department’s chief press officer, Sean McCormack, who as the Assistant Secretary in charge must outrank Cooper, got it precisely right at today’s press briefing:

… while we certainly don’t agree with, support, or in some cases, we condemn the views that are aired in public that are published in media organizations around the world, we, at the same time, defend the right of those individuals to express their views. For us, freedom of expression is at the core of our democracy and it is something that we have shed blood and treasure around the world to defend and we will continue to do so.


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: