Nearly a month ago, a Jewish political activist against the imposition of Sharia law in the United States and elsewhere held, what she labeled, an art contest and, for a $10,000 prize, invited artists to submit renditions of the Islamic prophet Mohammad. She was fully aware of what happened in Paris, France, when Islamic jihadists killed most of the journalistic staff of Charlie Hebdo for publishing cartoons of the prophet Mohammad. She knew she was inciting at least an insult and maybe retaliation on par with Charlie Hebdo. She held the art contest to “show jihadis they won’t frighten us into silence.”

The Mero Moment, by Paul Mero
by Paul Mero

As it turned out, two American-style jihadis drove from Phoenix, Arizona, to Garland, Texas, where Gellar lives, to disrupt the art show and kill Gellar. Garland police stopped them, killing both gunmen, but an unarmed security guard was injured in the gunfight.

Unsurprisingly, the talking heads in the media were divided. On the one hand, many opinion leaders, such as Bill O’Reilly, accused Gellar of spurring the violent attack against her, saying that she provoked the attack and should have not held the art show. On the other hand, voices such as Fox News’ Megyn Kelly defended free speech saying, “When people exercise their First Amendment rights, and two jihadis show up to murder them, the relevant question at that time is not what were they saying? The relevant question is what are we going to do about this group of people that wants to murder us because we believe in free speech and the First Amendment?”

I’m certainly sympathetic to the opinion that free speech has limits. No right is absolute in a free society. Speech, even political speech, has to have some boundaries. But, in this case, I’ll defend Gellar’s free speech.

As recently as four years ago, the United States Supreme Court, in an 8 to 1 decision, pronounced that free speech is near to sacred in this country. Outside of Islamic jihadists, has there been a more repugnant and repulsive display of free speech than the protests of the late Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church? Phelps and his few followers made regular headlines by protesting at the funerals of military personnel. They would display signs saying deeply offensive things such as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates You.”

The father of a dead soldier took Phelps to court on charges centering on “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” A local jury sided with the soldier’s family and awarded them millions of dollars in compensatory and punitive damages. On appeal a District Court reduced the punitive damages but left the verdict intact. But, on further appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed in favor of Phelps on grounds that his speech, as vile as it was, is protected by the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court concurred stating “…this Nation has chosen to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that public debate is not stifled….” The lone dissent in the case came from conservative Justice Samuel Alito. He wrote, “Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault” committed by Phelps and his followers.

As offensive as Phelps’ words were, neither Phelps nor the soldier’s family sought to kill each other. Not so in the case of Gellar’s free speech and the jihadist assault in Garland, Texas. Radical Islam and Sharia law are enemies of a free society. They are enemies of free association and enemies of the free exercise of religion. Underpinning these fundamental rights, of course, is free speech. Gellar’s speech was intended to be provocative precisely because these jihadists are enemies of freedom. Personalities aside, what Gellar did was no different than what many of our founding fathers did to express similar messages – except in her case Gellar had the courage to reveal her identity, and for that courage she was hunted down.

You and I might not do what Gellar did. But why she did it is not only worthy of our support but also worthy of First Amendment protection.

 

"Defending Free Speech": Mero Moment for May 28, 2015.

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