Blogs > Liberty and Power > Vagina Monologues (Yes) Mohammed Cartoon (No)

Feb 9, 2006 9:15 pm

Vagina Monologues (Yes) Mohammed Cartoon (No)

Yet another illustration of the selective enforcement of speech codes. Eugene Volokh reports that administrators at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scota have banned a professor from displaying cartoons of Mohammed on his office door because several Muslim students complained.

Meanwhile, the University is sponsoring a benefit production of the Vagina Monologues (which many find equally offensive) and is piously promoting this benefit on the main campus website.

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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Rod's distinction is an important one, but as it happens, Muslims are engaged both in general advocacy of violence and in specific threats aimed at specific people. They're also engaged in specific acts of violence, and have in the past killed people over blasphemy--within Muslim countries and outside of them.

Meanwhile, Bolton is committed to saying that neither is a violation of free speech. Indeed, he's committed to saying that nothing is a violation of free speech unless it violates a law protecting the specific form of speech in question.

Incidentally, Bolton asks about "remedies" against the Muslims in question, then jumps to lunacies like vaporizing whole cities. We needn't go that far: a bit of adverse moral judgment would be a nice start, and even a nice finish.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Should there be a right to street demonstrations in which the demonstrators burn down buildings?

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Isn't the threat to murder someone for drawing something a violation of freedom of the press? The position prominently being taken in the Muslim world is that blasphemous cartoonists should be killed for the act of putting pen to paper for blasphemous purposes. That's about as obvious a violation of the right to a free press as can be imagined-- short of someone walking up to a blasphemous cartoonist and slicing his head off. But I suppose in the latter case you would complain that the beheading didn't precisely coincide with the cartoon-drawing, hence it wasn't a free speech matter, but just an unrelated instance of random insanity.

Was the Theo van Gogh murder a violation of free speech--or was it just a "nutcase" wielding a knife and coincidentally managing to kill someone who had just happened to say blasphemous things against what just chanced to be the nutcase's religion?

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

I think it might help if you took the first exit out of your "world" and found the on-ramp to the one the rest of us live in.

When at last you do, it may dawn on you that rights claims don't depend for their legitimacy on the existence or possibility of remedies, that Muslims live in Europe, that Muslims are making threats in Europe, and in any case that global transportation exists so that a would-be assassin can travel from place X to place Y to murder someone. Amazing how the modern "world" works, isn't it?

At that point, you may recall or learn that we have precedents stretching from 1989 to the present for Muslims killing purveyors of unpopular speech. It may for instance dawn on you that Theo van Gogh was murdered in Europe by a European, not by "street protesters in Syria"; and that the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was murdered by a Muslim without being anywhere near the streets of Syria.

If you think really really hard, it may dawn on you that those individuals in, say, Syria who agree with the Danish cartoonists cannot say that they do under threat of death. The (somewhat analogous) case of Najib Mahfouz comes to mind (in Egypt). But I guess their rights aren't being violated because not having said anything, they haven't yet been beheaded, and thus haven't sought a remedy. I'm not really sure what legal remedies there are for decapitation, but I feel pretty certain they aren't adequate to make the victim whole, or even to plugging the hole where his head once was.

Feel free to re-start this conversation anytime after they beam you back down to planet Earth.

Steven Horwitz - 2/11/2006

In David's original post, he used the phrase "speech codes" and not "free speech." The first mention of "free speech" was in Craig Bolton's first reply. It was clear to me, and perhaps this is because I'm also an academic, that David was talking about academic freedom and the inconsistencies we see, mostly on the left, in applying it to various groups. Hence his post.

This also is one response to Mark Brady's original point about property rights (made by others as well). Yes, private actors and institutions can do what they wish with their property, but universities that claim to be devoted to academic freedom are thus open to critique by others when they do not live by that standard consistently. A private college that claims to uphold academic freedom and then selectively applies it is not violating the First Amendment, but it certainly deserves scorn and outrage from those of us who deeply value academic freedom.

Which reminds me... I'm STILL curious what folks around here (esp. you David!) make of the AAC&U statement on academic freedom found here:

David T. Beito - 2/11/2006

Yes to all your questions. Hard cases (and these all would be exceptional caes) make bad law.

I am not saying we should be quiet in such situations. People like that can be denounced, exposed, etc. but allowing them academic freedom is the best guarantee that it will be secure everyone else. Please note that most of the violations of academic freedom do not involve hard cases like the ones you mentioned.

The cause of these "non-hard" caes will be made much easier when they can say "well, even___________is allowed to say this in the classroom, why can't I?"

Sheldon Richman - 2/11/2006

Of course, Roderick Long's comment was insightful, but such a view has been implicit in most or all the other comments. I don't recall seeing anyone here write that a nonviolent demonstrator in Syria, even if he calls for punishment of the cartoonists, should himself be punished. Rather, what libertarians have been doing is simply pointing out that offensive cartooning, under a proper conception of natural law, is not deserving of violent reprisal. We have been condemning a view taken by demonstrators (as well as their actual violence.) What's the difficulty? Distant Protestor: "That cartoonist should be beheaded for his offensive cartoon." Libertarian: "No, he should not be beheaded; that would violate his rights, including his right to free expression. All he did was draw a cartoon. He did not himself use violence against innocent persons. If you are offended, you may only demonstrate it in nonviolent ways."

Craig J. Bolton - 2/10/2006

I meant, with respect to the original context from the prior Blog post, that the perspective of the street demonstrators [that the cartoonists should not be allowed to publish such cartoons and should be punished if they do publish such cartoons] is, in abstract from any legal system of established rights, probably no more or less offensive or "a violation of [natural] rights" than the notion that has been widely expressed in this forum and elsewhere [that the street demonstrators should not be allowed to shout yell and call for violence or censorship agsinst those who have purposely demeaned their G_d].

[Again, IMHO, violence doesn't come into this particular picture, since the only actual or credible violence was far removed from the cartoonists and was inflicted on third parties who were not really responsible for the cartoons. While one could ask if such violence is itself undesireable - and the answer should probably be "it sure is" - that has nothing to do with the relative rights of the cartoonists and the street demonstrators or the infringement on those relative rights.]

Personally, I think that both sides "should" "have a right" to do what they've done - that is, that there should be no prior restraint on either offensive cartoons or offensive street demonstrations, but that the cartoonists and the street demonstators were both out of line in doing what they did [publishing purposely offensive cartoons demeaning someone else's religion and calling for legal prohibitions or personal violence against those who publish such cartoons]. Nice people don't do either of those things.

But then, again, I am not coming from a "natural rights of all men" background. I am coming, rather, from what might be called a "small group anarchy" background in which people agree to their legal rights and duties before or as a part of affiliating with a given society.

Roderick T. Long - 2/10/2006

What do you mean by "both directions"?

Craig J. Bolton - 2/10/2006

Other than Mark's initial comment [and, of course, all of mine] this is the most insightful observative I've seen on this cartoon topic.

The only thing I would add is that "legal" and "illegal" are only meaningful terms if there is a common legal code and enforcement mechanism [which was the point of my questions about where the Danish cartoonist would sue or seek police assistance against the Syrians who were purportedly violating his rights].

Craig J. Bolton - 2/10/2006

Yes, well, you see the jumps you're making are just what worried me to start with.

People demonstrate violently in Syria over cartoons published in Denmark.

They are Muslims.

There are also Muslims in Denmark, and, besides which, people can travel from Syria to Denmark.

Hence, there is a threat to freedom of speech in Denmark.

Threats to our liberties demand a remedy. [Yes, an actual remedy if there is an actual threat.]

What remedies would you suggest[something you never got around to answering, for, I suspect, very good reasons].

Since these people are those who you identify primarily as Muslims [not as yahoo fundamentalists, but just as Muslims] should all Muslims be expelled from Denmark and refused entry thereto?

Should a demand be made on Syria to exterdict the offending street demonstrators for trial in Denmark?

What if Syria won't comply [just like the Afgans refused to comply with Bin Laden]?

Should the Muslim world then be vaporized or invaded and conquered?

Maybe only those cities where people have called for the death of Danish cartoonists should be vaporized?

Ideas have consequences. Some absurd ideas that are murky to start with have very undesirable consequences.

Craig J. Bolton - 2/10/2006

Agreed. Then the question becomes "Does academic freedom ever have any limits, even in a public university ?"

Suppose, for instance, that a Physics professor posts Klan promotional literature on his office door with a "join now" card holder. "Academic freedom?"

Suppose that a Biology professor posts a sign on his office door suggesting that the President of the United States is a traitor and should be tried and hung. "Academic freedom?"

How about a case where a psychology professor, say one tenured at U.C. Riverside, publishes a three volume trilogy "proving" that Jews are a genetic conspiracy against everyone else in the world and that the Law [that is the Torah law] is just a genetic strategy in furtherance of their war against the rest of the human race. [This hypothetical, incidentally, isn't all that hypothetical.] "Academic Freedom?"

Seems to me we have another of those totally nebulous discussions over "ideals" like "free speech" without reference to any specific laws defining what is and what is not "free speech."

Craig J. Bolton - 2/10/2006

Quite right. Now can you apply that in both directions?

Roderick T. Long - 2/10/2006

There are a number of different issues involved here, but I think one of the ones is: what's the boundary between advocating a rights-violation and threatening a rights-violation? Presumably the former should be legal (otherwise all non-libertarians should be in jail) and the latter should be illegal. If waving a banner somewhere in Syria that says "behead the cartoonists!" counts as advocacy rather than as a threat, then that act is not a violation of anyone's free speech.

Roderick T. Long - 2/10/2006

I don't see the inconsistency. Someone can be in favor of a person's right to say something and still criticise them for saying it. Likewise one can be in favor of a university's right to allow/prohibit some particular speech and still criticise them for allowing/prohibiting it.

Mark Brady - 2/10/2006

Steve: I think David's point was that the overlords of acceptable speech are unhappy about the cartoon but fine with the VMs, which seems inconsistent. His call here is for consistency - it should be okay *in both cases* to offend people.

Mark: Surely that point might be true only if some people had protested at the Vagina Monologues and the adminstration ignored their request to halt the production.

Craig J. Bolton - 2/10/2006

What I was referring to [as I said in the initial post] was what appeared to me to be the contrast between Mr. Beito's views in this Blog post and his one of a few days ago. The topic of the previous Beito piece was explicitly "free speech" and how libertarians should be defending it. Does that only apply to Danish cartoonists? I think not.

Craig J. Bolton - 2/10/2006

Frankly, this discussion seems sillier and sillier to me. If we've reached the point where we can't tell the difference between the frothing of some street fanatic half a world away and someone actually attack on or harm to the property of a person in our society then, I guess, we deserve George Bush as Our Great Leader. Certainly, he can't tell the difference.


Obviously [or maybe not] that last sentence should have read "If we've reached the point where we can't tell the difference between the frothing of some street fanatic half a world away and someone actually attacking or harming the property of a person in our society then, I guess, we deserve George Bush as Our Great Leader. Certainly, he can't tell the difference. "

Craig J. Bolton - 2/10/2006

I think that you need to reread my comment.

Craig J. Bolton - 2/10/2006

Let's see if I understand your contention. Street demonstrator in Syria says that Danish cartoonist should be put to death for his cartoon. Danish cartoonist's "free speech right" are therefore violated. So, in my world if there is a violation of rights there is a possible remedy. Which police does Danish cartoonist call or which court does he sue in? Indeed, where do we find Danish cartoonist's "free speech rights" spelled out so we will know for certain whether they have been violated or not?

Frankly, this discussion seems sillier and sillier to me. If we've reached the point where we can't tell the difference between the frothing of some street fanatic half a world away and someone actually attack on or harm to the property of a person in our society then, I guess, we deserve George Bush as Our Great Leader. Certainly, he can't tell the difference.

David T. Beito - 2/10/2006

I agree entirely with the only proviso that, in the meantime, government universities like this, should have truth in advertising e.g. if they claim to be be dedicated to "academic freedom" (a better term here than "free speech") they should observe it with some consistency.

David T. Beito - 2/10/2006

Good point in another respect. Probably a better word to describe the value I am arguing for here would be "academic freedom" (something universities claim, at least, to uphold) rather than free speech.

David T. Beito - 2/10/2006

Please specify what you mean. I never advocated the initiation of violence by anyone (demonstrators or government authorities) in any of my posts. Steve summarizes my other points better than I could.

Matt Barganier - 2/10/2006

Where in this post did Dr. Beito use the phrase "free speech"? He's not criticizing St. Mary's for violating anyone's right to free speech. He -- speaking as an academic about an academic institution -- is simply engaging in a little cultural criticism. If I were to say, "Oh, Magazine X claims to be so open-minded, but they won't run anything that challenges the conventional wisdom on global warming," I would not be claiming that Magazine X violated anyone's rights. I would just be chiding them for failing to live up to their alleged ideals. Get a grip, people.

David T. Beito - 2/10/2006

A private institution should be able to do whatever wants. Having said that, I still think such a double standard is rather silly.

Jason Pappas - 2/10/2006

I find it amazing that Mr. Bieto is getting so much flak for speaking out against a university where a particular belief system is considered exempt from critical scrutiny—-if not in full, at least by means currently used in regard to other cherished beliefs.

Craig J. Bolton - 2/10/2006

And what keeps being missed in this discussion is "violence against whom." If I read an editorial you write in my local newspaper and "as a result" hit my wife while cursing your name that isn't a "violation of free speech" by any definition [no matter how loose].

Now it may be an indication that I am a nut case [just as, arguably, the similar acts of the demonstrators is an indication of their mental state in the Muhammad Cartoon incident] but it has nothing at all to do with your free speech.

Steven Horwitz - 2/10/2006

I think David's point was that the overlords of acceptable speech are unhappy about the cartoon but fine with the VMs, which seems inconsistent. His call here is for consistency - it should be okay *in both cases* to offend people.

What his earlier post was pointing out is that *violence* (which you admit is happening) and the destruction of lives and property is NEVER an acceptable response to the free speech of others. Griping, grousing, and complaining *always* is acceptable; violence is not.

William J. Stepp - 2/10/2006

I second Mark's remarks.
The issue in "free speech" is not the speech per se (which has no rights), as liberals and conservatives think, but rather, who has the property rights where the speech is made?
A property owner has the right to establish his own "editorial policy"
about who says what on his property.
Liberals sometimes complain about censorship, even when neither censoring nor a censor (originally a Roman state official) is involved.
A college or other private institutuion has a right to restrict speech in accordance with the owners' wishes, just as people who dislike their policy have a right to disagree and boycott or otherwise not patronize them.

State-controlled institutions should be privatized posthaste, which would remove decisions about speech and editorial policy from the corrupt public realm and put them where they should be made.

Craig J. Bolton - 2/10/2006


After your last two blogposts I'm somewhat bewildered about what your view is concerning these things.

Is the fact that someone is truly "offended" by a particular act or statement of another person, and said act was, in fact, intended to give offense, an important thing or an unimportant thing? If important, is it grounds for "censoring" [of course it isn't censoring at all in the legal sense of that term] that act or statement?

I am curious because, if I am reading your blog entries correctly [and maybe I'm not], you seem to have a curious view of "free speech" or "proper offense" underlying these blog entires.

Danish political journal publishes purposely prevocative cartoons of the central figure in the belief system of one billion muslims. Some of said Muslims react violently and call for an apology and for limitations on future such insults. [This is a bad thing because it potentially inhibits "free speech."]

University sponsors a play that many people may find offensive and other people find to be an in-your-face ideological statement. [This may be a bad thing, because many people may be offended?]

Professor posts cartoons on his door which, presumably, he knows will be offensive to some people. [A good thing because its his exercise "free speech."]

I guess that in the world I live in we all make judgments about whose offense we should or shouldn't be concerned about, but we don't then go about referring to our personal judgments concerning such matters as "free speech" or exort others to "support free speech" by agreeing with our judgments.

Mark Brady - 2/10/2006

I've visited the website of Saint Mary's University and it seems that in 1970 it became a public institution. And, as readers may be aware, Grove City College is a private institution that resolutely refuses taxpayer funds (good for them!). That said, I'm not inclined to change what I said. I don't wish to see Saint Mary's subject to further state edicts. Rather I wish to see Saint Mary's returned to private ownership and control.

Mark Brady - 2/10/2006

David, the bottom line is that the administration of Saint Mary's University are exercising their property rights in a manner of which you disapprove. Each day millions of people act in ways of which millions of other people disapprove. On the basis of what I have read, I don't agree with the administration either. But why should this decision concern us as outsiders any more than, say, the decision of the biology department of Grove City College not to teach evolution by natural selection? I suggest that in some significant regard the two sets of decisions are comparable.