Free expression or religious disrespect?

When it comes to First Amendment concepts, I’m pretty close to an absolutist. But decisions like the one made this week by Yale University Press pose one of those conundrums that can arise if you believe strongly in free expression and freedom of religion.

Later this year, Yale University Press is publishing The Cartoons That Shook the World, an account of the uproar and riots that occurred in September 2005 when a Danish newspaper published 12 caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. But the book will not include the cartoons themselves — or any other illustrations of Muhammad that were originally to be included in the book.

According to the NYT, Yale University Press made the decision based on an “overwhelming and unanimous” recommendation from two dozen consultants, including diplomats and experts on Islam and counterterrorism. The fear, evidently, is that republishing the cartoons could lead to another round of violence and deaths. Author Jytte Klausen said she reluctantly agreed. The premise of her book is that the reaction to publication of the cartoons was “orchestrated, first by those with vested interests in elections in Denmark and Egypt, and later by Islamic extremists seeking to destabilize governments in Pakistan, Lebanon, Libya, and Nigeria.” As a result, she says this was a political conflict, not a cultural misunderstanding.

Now, granted, the First Amendment doesn’t preclude a publisher or author from making editorial decisions like this. Still, this highlights the struggle that can occur between between free expression and freedom of religion or, more accurately, respecting the right of someone to hold certain beliefs. What are the boundaries when one person’s expression is offensive or, more accurately, contrary to another’s faith or creed? And that core issue is even one step removed here. The book is not the complained of expression. Rather, it is an examination of that expression and its aftermath, an examination that presumably does not adopt the expression or reject the religion.

Yet Yale’s decision may be the only middle ground between the two positions. As Yale believes the cartoons can be accurately described in words, it believes it is fostering expression on and exploration of the issue without treading upon Muslim beliefs. For me, though, the scales probably trip toward publishing all the images. First, the middle ground strikes me as undercutting not only free expression but the flip side of freedom of religion, i.e., freedom from religion. Second, I question whether words can adequately substitute for visual expression. Finally, what is being withheld is not just the source of the controversy but other, previous images. To some extent then, it ignores or seeks to rewrite reality.

What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.

Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands

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