Why Freedom of Expression is So Essential

The terrorist attacks in Paris at Charlie Hebdo and in Copenhagen targeting artist Lars Vilks have reopened conversation about whether there should be limits to free artistic expression. Are cartoon caricatures that offend a religious group too provocative to be protected as free speech?

The Jewish people has suffered for generations from hatred and cruelty. Nazi propaganda, which drew upon ugly centuries-old characterizations of Jews, aided the Nazi’s campaign to dehumanize Jews in the public mind. I sympathize with concerned Muslims who are hurt by drawings ridiculing their prophet, offending their religious beliefs. Some also worry that the caricatures may fuel backlash against Islam. But our two people’s struggles are not quite the same.

There is a distinction between hate speech that is threatening and artistic expression that is just hateful. Some people around the world wonder if provocative cartoons should be restricted from publication. America has always valued freedom of expression, refining the discipline to avoid acting emotionally rather than rationally.

I recall 1977, when the National Socialist party of America petitioned authorities in Skokie, Illinois, to hold a Nazi march. Skokie, then a largely Jewish town with 1/6 population of Holocaust survivors, denied their permit. Court rulings considered whether the march constituted hate speech and should be banned. Ultimately, the Illinois Supreme Court decided that the Nazi march was constitutionally protected: “The display of the swastika, as offensive to the principles of a free nation as the memories it recalls may be, is symbolic political speech intended to convey to the public the beliefs of those who display it.” (January 1978)

Where is the line between freedom of expression as protected speech, and hate speech, as banned by law in many states and nations? If someone paints a swastika on the house of a Jewish family or synagogue, or an anti-Muslim slur on the home of a Muslim family or mosque, it is a threat; it is hate speech. The First Amendment protects other free expression: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

The right to free expression is a cornerstone of western democracies, based on a faith that ultimately good people and justice will prevail. Yet, we also have the right and responsibility to speak out when the content of speech (or art) seems to cross lines of decency. Is it appropriate to ridicule the prophet Muhammed in caricature? Is it wise? Is it necessary? Do the political messages suggested by the art outweigh the power of its hurtfulness? Are there times when we should self-censor out of decency?

These questions are our shared task as Jews, Christian, Muslims and others, as people concerned about the challenges of a pluralistic world. Jewish tradition teaches us to guard our tongue against evil speech. The task is to hear and speak with compassion as we fix our world (tikkun olam) together.

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