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Editorial: We must defend freedom of expression

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MAY 05, 2015 5:00 AM

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On Sunday, two men opened fire with automatic rifles at a Texas exhibit of depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. The shooting is a reflection of what happened in Paris, when 12 people were shot and killed for their satirical work in the magazine Charlie Hedbo.

Fortunately, there was only one injury aside from the gunmen — an unarmed security guard was hit in the leg and will make a full recovery. The Garland, Texas, police were providing security for the exhibit, and the two gunmen were shot and killed before they could inflict further damage. The shooting took place outside the exhibit, and the 200 attendees were unaware the incident had occurred.

Though an ISIS militant tweeted support for the gunmen’s actions, there seems to be no strong ties between the two men and the terrorist entity, because the group hasn’t claimed responsibility.

The exhibit was organized by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, which offered a $10,000 prize for the best artwork depicting Muhammad. Depicting the image of the prophet is considered highly offensive to Muslims and in the past has provoked those with radical ideology to attack.

The intentions of American Freedom Defense Initiative were certainly to offend. Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician and staunch anti-Islamist, was the featured speaker. Further, the group is considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. It has funded anti-Islam advertising in public-transit systems across the nation.

Whether its intentions were to offend or not is beside the point. What might be deemed disrespectful and in bad taste is still protected under the First Amendment. The group had every right to its exhibition. The University of Iowa faced the question of whether a display should be allowed, even if it is offensive, recently. The removal of a KKK-like statue with anti-racist intent prompted many to question the motives of the university in doing so and whether the statue was protected by the First Amendment. 

The real difference here is that one is intentionally offensive while the other is a historical symbol of violence and fear. The concern from people who felt threatened or uncomfortable by the statue was legitimate — in the last century, a figure such as that would actively spread violence and hate.

Regardless, it seems that whether something is offensive or not shouldn’t change what is protected by the freedom of speech. The only danger here is if the opinions of the majority outweigh the minority’s ability to defend its own offensive speech. In the United States, for example, expression critical of Christianity has been censored in the past. It’s up to our government to give all speech equal consideration.

The Daily Iowan Editorial Board believes the American Freedom Defense Initiative was perfectly within its rights and that attempting to suppress such expression is in no way justifiable. Whether it was provocative is a matter of opinion, which shouldn’t alter what speech is protected.

That said, all speech is subject to time, place, and manner restrictions under the law, and there are necessary considerations when dealing with imagery used to intimidate, given its historical context. The concerns of the few shouldn’t outweigh the concerns of the many, but we also cannot let the many marginalize the few.


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