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Editorial

Anti-Muslim event is protected free speech even if offensive

The 1st Amendment protects offensive speech about religion just as it does racist speech

Pamela Geller, whose organization's Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest was attacked by two gunmen Sunday, has made offensive comments about Islam. But that in no way undermines her right to free speech or legitimizes violence against her or anyone else.

That might seem an obvious point. Yet since the attack in Garland, Texas — in which the gunmen were shot to death after wounding a security guard — some commentators have wondered whether events such as the cartoon exhibit sponsored by Geller's American Freedom Defense Initiative might be too offensive to deserve full 1st Amendment protection. For instance, the headline on a McClatchy news story published after the Texas shooting asked "If free speech is provocative, should there be limits?"

The short answer is no — beyond the narrow exceptions the Supreme Court has acknowledged in its interpretations of the 1st Amendment. Those exceptions include face-to-face "fighting words" likely to be interpreted as "an invitation to exchange fisticuffs" and statements "directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and [are] likely to incite or produce such action." Neither of those exacting standards was remotely satisfied by the event in Texas.

Nor does it matter whether the cartoon contest was intended to celebrate free expression — as Geller maintained — or whether its entire purpose was to single out Islam for ridicule in a way that the French magazine Charlie Hebdo did not. (That publication lampooned all major religions.) It is protected speech in either case.

As the Supreme Court said in ruling in favor of a demonstration by the hateful Westboro Baptist Church (quoting an earlier decision protecting the burning of the American flag as a political protest): "If there is a bedrock principle underlying the 1st Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable."

That's true even when the sensibilities of a religious group are offended. Many societies — including some U.S. states in the past — have passed laws banning blasphemy, but it is now recognized that the 1st Amendment protects offensive speech about religion just as it does racist speech.

You can deplore Geller's words — as we do — and still recognize that she is entitled to express them without fear of violent reprisals or concern that she is violating the law. It's not only possible but necessary to insist on that distinction.

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