Sunday, February 26, 2006


Worldwide cartoon death toll to date (according to The Hindu, India): "at least 127."

Summers Resigns

Harvard President Lawrence Summers resigned last week as the controversies heated up by his five-year reign came to a boil. There an interesting post-mortem on Summers as manager and leader in the New York Times. Also, Alan Dershowitz, a Summers supporter at Harvard, has an understandably angry op-ed piece in the Boston Globe, which (like everything Alan writes) is well worth reading. Summers got his Warholian fifteen minutes last year when he suggested that one reason why there are fewer women than men in the hard sciences, along with several others that he discussed at some length, might be a lower aptitude for math.

My own take? It might be possible (just barely) for a University CEO with Summers' opinions to survive, but he or she would have to be a much, much smoother operator than Summers was. But then, smooth operators generally avoid having such opinions. That's the ultimate in smoothness, isn't it?

Friday, February 24, 2006

The Insulted, the Injured, and the Offended

One obvious question pops out of the sorry saga of cartoon mayhem: Why on earth wouldn't drawings that satirize or criticize an important historical person be protected by freedom of speech? If that isn't a case of protected speech, what the heck is? What could the people who want to discipline or punish those who publish the cartoons be thinking?

Actually, there is an obvious answer to this obvious question, and it's one that knee-jerk defenders of free speech (such as me) should understand. It is that the drawings really are seriously offensive to some people. The cartoons occur in an overlap area, in that they are instances both of a traditional class of protected speech (political speech, expressions of ideas) and a traditional category of behavior that is not protected: conduct that is offensive to others.

As to the latter category, even John Stuart Mill, the great defender of free speech, said:

Again, there are many acts which, being directly injurious only to the agents themselves, ought not to be legally interdicted, but which, if done publicly, are a violation of good manners, and coming thus within the category of offences against others, may rightfully be prohibited. Of this kind are offences against decency....

Since Mill mentions "offences against decency," it's natural to think that the offense against others that he is talking about here is simply the emotional offendedness that people experience at the site of, say, public nudity. But then, if such emotions justify legal coercion, what happens to free speech? The sorts of ideas that we are actually tempted censor are always ones that are offensive to someone -- that's why we censor them! That's the whole problem with those cartoons. Where do you draw the line?

I think there is a line that a follower of Mill (note: this doesn't include me -- Mill's defense of liberty is too weak-kneed and flexible for me) might draw. You could say that your offended feelings don't count as a basis for coercion if the feelings are based on moral, political, or religious disapproval. If I publish a drawing making fun of your prophet, you will be offended because you disapprove of the drawings. If you censor the drawings, you are merely enforcing your religious opinions.

On the other hand, if I build a pig farm next door to your house, and you find the smell offensive, the reason you are offended is not that you morally, politically, or religiously disapprove of pigs or pig dung. If you sue me, you are not enforcing your Weltanschauung, but merely defending your rights.

The line to draw separates offense that is based on normative opinions and offense that seems to be hard-wired in the human brain. The Muslims who demand that those who publish the cartoons be punished are sincerely offended, and that is unfortunate, but it is also true that they are on the wrong side of this line. They are trying to ram their view of the world down other people's throats.

The Cartooniad: The American Sequel

As I said earlier this week, the furor over the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammed in a disrespectful light has spread to American university campuses. I just got an email from Greg Luckianoff of TheFire, a civil liberties group that for academic freedom and free speech on campus. Greg's message includes some updates on events on campuses around the country:

"Although censorship in response to displays of the cartoons has been rare, it has indeed occurred. At Century College in Minnesota, adjunct professor of geography Karen Murdock posted the 12 original cartoons, articles about the resultant international controversy, and comment sheets on a bulletin board near her office. After the cartoons were anonymously torn down several times, Murdock reported that her division head removed the cartoons and a university administrator requested that she not repost them.

"Some Muslim students also wrote a letter saying they were “heartbroken” to see that Murdock had posted the cartoons, claiming that '[d]uring the last week, this incident had a very negative impact on our ability to concentrate on our studies.' While no disciplinary action was taken against Murdock, she has not reposted the cartoons out of fear of possible fallout. She told FIRE, 'When a division chairman and a college vice president both tell an untenured adjunct professor that something should not be posted on a bulletin board, this is a suggestion that has the force of a direct order. The cartoons would still be posted if I felt that I had a say in the matter.'

"At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, student editors Acton Gorton and Chuck Prochaska printed six of the original 12 cartoons in the independent student paper The Daily Illini. The Chicago Tribune reported on February 14 that the Illini’s board of directors, composed of staff and students, dismissed Gorton and Prochaska for failing to consult with “other student editors and staff members” in making the decision to print the cartoons. The paper then ran an editorial apologizing for printing the cartoons and calling Gorton “a renegade editor who firmly believes that his will is also the will of the paper.”

"The Chicago Maroon reported on February 17 that an anonymous University of Chicago student hung a homemade sketch of Mohammed with a caption reading “Mo’ Mohammed, Mo’ Problems” outside his dorm room. After receiving a complaint about the sketch, Resident Head Andrea Gates ordered it removed and reported the student who had posted it to the Housing Office for a possible investigation. The student removed the sketch and issued a written apology. The university has taken no further action, and FIRE continues to investigate the situation.

"Similarly, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), student Mitchell Foley reported to FIRE that he had posted the 12 cartoons on his dorm room door until his resident assistant told him to remove them. He removed the cartoons and has not reposted them; RPI has not commented on the situation.

"There have also been various instances of student papers running the cartoons with little to no reaction from administrators. Student papers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Purdue University, the University of Arizona, Northern Illinois University, and Harvard University have all printed the original cartoons, or their own versions depicting the prophet, without official consequence."

To me, the most striking thing about this little narrative is the observation that censorship has so far been rare. Let's hope this is a trend!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


World-wide cartoon death toll to date (Reuters): "at least 50."

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Cartooniad: The Epic Continues!

In case you have been sojourning lately at the bottom of an abandoned mineshaft, here's the situation: A while ago, a Danish newpaper published twelve cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammed. After a delay of half a year, involving much hard work on the part of extremist Muslims in publicising the drawings, they sparked arson, murder, and mayhem at various spots in the Muslim part of the world. For a long time, they went unpublished in the print media of England and the United States. Finally, very recently, three college newspapers published some of the drawings: The Harvard Crimson, the Illinois Illini, and the Badger Herald here at the University of Wisconsin.

At Illinois, reprisals were swift: both the general editor and the opinion page editor were put on suspension by the newspaper's publisher. Here at the UW, Chancellor John Wiley has so far shown restraint.

On Monday (Feb. 18) the Herald will publish an op-ed piece which will be signed by several people, but the actual authors are two friends of mine, Don Downs and Ken Mayer of the UW - Madison Poli. Sci. Department.

Here is their essay:


The Freedom to Offend

Controversy has beset the Badger Herald for publishing an editorial accompanied by a cartoon of Mohammed wearing a turban shaped as bomb. Critics have hurled several accusations at the Herald, including questions about the timing of the speech act, the motivations of the editorial board, and the claim that the board could have achieved its purpose by describing the image rather than publishing it. Such charges often attend the publication of contentious or offending comments or portrayals, and are a proper part of the critical examination of any controversy. Human motivation is often complex, and the decision to publish something controversial is no exception to this fact of life.

But the most prevalent elements of this criticism – that the Herald editors should be punished for showing the cartoon, or condemned because the cartoon was blasphemous – are ones that no democratic society should accept. We must resist the idea that the expression of a political idea, or a statement of criticism, or satire, should be subject to sanction or prohibited, simply because one group or another finds that idea, criticism, or satire offensive.

Many examples of historically important expression caused great offense in their time. Socrates was put to death for blaspheming the Greek and Athenian gods. Galileo was threatened with torture for claiming that the earth was not the center of the universe, an idea that conflicted with the established position of the Church. Martin Luther King was arrested and spied upon for his opposition to Jim Crow. To be sure, most offensive expression does not rise to the level of these paragons of intellectual and moral stature, but there is no principled way to know, in advance, what will ultimately be of value. Indeed, Socrates was considered dangerous precisely because of the strength of his arguments. Galileo’s heretical claims were, in fact, scientifically valid. And Martin Luther King’s moral truths are self-evident to us today.

The Supreme Court has rightly ruled that offense may not be the basis for punishment because there is no principled way to draw a line that distinguishes ideas from the offense that they might cause. The alternative is to reinforce orthodoxy, and to encourage tepid expression rather than the kind of probing that sparks serious thought and counter-thought.

Allowing offense to be the basis of reprisal or censorship, moreover, simply gives groups or individuals the power to suppress the speech of anyone with whom they happen to disagree. In our liberal democracy, no group – however virtuous or religious – may claim an exemption from criticism or scrutiny, nor may any religion demand that secular society adhere to its own definitions of heresy or blasphemy. When such policies are attempted, they lead to bullying, favoritism based on power, and the end of meaningful freedom of speech and thought. The inevitable result is that certain issues and ideas become off limits to any discussion at all, based on a subjective and always-moving standard of who might take offense. We suspect that few people would want to live in an environment where the mere expression of an idea could lead to punishment.

The question is doubly important when we are speaking about the press. Newspapers – including the Badger Herald – routinely publish articles, cartoons, satire and commentary that one group or another will find offensive or even dangerous: consider how the campus might react to editorials disparaging affirmative action, supporting a boycott of Israel, or mocking fundamentalist Christians. Insisting that newspapers not publish anything that might be deemed offensive or blasphemous is an untenable and hazardous standard, one that subjects public discussion to a heckler’s veto.

Today, the question of the role of religion in American and international life is as important as it has ever been. In wrestling with the difficult questions of religion and politics, we need more freedom of speech and the courage to speak our truths, not less. For this reason, despite questions concerning timing, motive, and form, the Herald could be said to have performed a service for the community.

Let us now take advantage of this controversy to examine these questions. Criticism of the Herald is necessarily a part of this important process. Many people have made principled arguments that the Herald exercised poor judgment, and the editors can claim no exemption from criticism for their action. But such criticism must accept the basic tenets of free speech in a liberal democracy.

Donald Downs and Kenneth Mayer are professors of political science, UW-Madison. They express these views as members of the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights, a group of UW-Madison faculty members who advocate academic freedom, and whose members join in supporting this essay.


I think Don and Ken have deftly identified the main issue, the one that indentifies it as a free-speech case, separating it from a whole school of red herrings. The question is: Should the editors of the Herald be punished for running the drawing? My own view is that the answer has to be the one that the prime minister of Denmark gave when certain Muslim clerics demanded that he punish the newspaper that originally ran the drawings: he said that he did not have the power to do so, and did not want that power. I hope and expect that Chancellor Wiley will have the courage to give the same answer.

Contrary to what some American politicians have suggested (including Bill Clinton, who should have known better), the cartoons did not cross any line drawn by any of the less brutal, more sensible sorts of censorship standards. They obviously did not offend simply for the sake of offending, they were not blasphemy for its own sake. They expressed opinions, whether right or wrong, about issues central to current public policy debates. To censor them would be to censor political speech and criminalize thoughts.

On the one hand. On the other hand, there are questions like: Are the drawings racist? Are they morally odious? Where the motives of the original publisher ignoble? Here I am inclined to give a very different sort of answer. While "racist" seems to be the wrong word (Islam is a religion, not a race), three of the drawings were very objectionable. They clearly alledged that Islam is, in general and apparently universally, violent and oppressive.

It is very important that we realize that there are Muslims who believe in liberal democracy and understand fully that free speech belongs to infidels as well as the faithful. They are unfortunately a small minority in their own countries, but this makes them all the more deserving of recognition. Some of them have risked their lives to defend the right of the Danish newspaper to publish the drawings.

These people should be cherished as heroes. You do not do this by suggesting, like the above-mentioned American politicians, that their defense of free speech goes too far.
Democracy in a Cartoon What would John Stuart Mill say about the Danish cartoons? Liberal Muslim writer Ibn Warraq has the answer.

The Great Bastiat, by J. G. Huelsmann. How a little-known French economist exploded the authoritarian doctrine that the interests of human beings inevitably conflict, and can only be reconciled by coercive intervention. This coercion is the very thing that causes the conflict in the first place.