The Garland, Texas Shooting, Free Speech and Ethics

Geller: Like it or not, the First Amendment was designed for her and people like her: infuriating people.

Geller: Like it or not, the First Amendment was designed for her and people like her: infuriating people.

Last Sunday, two men opened fire outside uber-Islam-hater Pamela Geller’s “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” in Garland, Texas. Both gunmen were killed by police, a security guard was wounded. Since cartoons of the Prophet have sparked killings around the globe, this was a risk, if not an inevitability, of holding such an event. That was undoubtedly one of the reasons for it, in fact: to show defiance of those that would cow us into self-censorship.

Since the episode, commentators and pundits have engaged in various levels of  confused ethical thought regarding the competition and the shooting, much of the confusion due to cognitive dissonance regarding Geller, who is beyond question an anti-Muslim bigot. So horrible is it to their delicate liberal sensibilities to have the principle of freedom of speech represented by Geller that rather than accept it, many would prefer to jettison freedom of speech itself. In this they seem to have forgotten that the reason for free speech is precisely to protect the most infuriating, inflammatory, controversial speakers, whether they be hateful fanatics like Geller, or Martin Luther King.

It really is remarkable that the First Amendment has survived so long, since those who discuss it in public the most frequently are journalists and politicians, neither of whom are consistently able to interpret it accurately.

Ethically, this isn’t hard, or shouldn’t be. In fact, not a single new issue is raised by the Texas shooting that was not thoroughly covered here five years ago:

1. No group, no matter how offended or righteous and no matter what its holy book says, is ethically entitled to threaten violence against those who say, or draw, things that they find offensive, including the offense of blasphemy.

2. Encouraging such groups to do this by self-censoring is cowardly and a threat to free speech. Thus South Park and Comedy Central breached their duties to the nation, the culture and free speech by censoring a satirical animated series after receiving radical Islamic threats. As I wrote here:

“Standing as an example of America’s ideals carries some responsibilities as well as benefits. News organizations operate with the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press, but they are sometimes called upon to protect that right when it is under attack. This requires integrity, sacrifice, acceptance of responsibility, and guts. Critics of popular leaders, government policies or wars have a duty to follow in the best tradition of Patrick Henry, John Adams, Thomas Paine, and Eugene V. Debs, and not clam up when threatened with imprisonment, censorship and violence. Yet the cable channel Comedy Central, which has so smugly and “bravely” turned its rapier (or sophomoric ) wit on Presidents, celebrities, dictators, demagogues, popes, and evangelists, has chosen to ignore its duty and betray its nation’s ideals by censoring itself, through its program “South Park,” in response to a threat from Islamic extremists.”

3. Setting out to intentionally insult a group, a nationality, a race or a religion is absolutely protected speech. However, demonizing, belittling, being cruel, mean, vicious or just hurtful because the First Amendment permits it is an unethical use of the right, even if the offense seems irrational or factually wrong. I don’t understand why this is such a difficult concept. Because Bill Maher has a right to call women he doesn’t like cunts and twats on TV, as he does with some regularity, that doesn’t make the conduct acceptably civil, respectful or fair. Similarly, intentionally causing emotional distress to the devout Muslims who never have threatened anyone in order to taunt those few who have is ethically indefensible, unless there is a reason for the expression other than “I’m doing this because I can, so there!”

This issue was covered here during the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy, which led to the development of The Second Niggardly Principle.

The First Niggardly Principle, inspired by a ridiculous incident in Washington, D.C. where an employee’s use of the word “niggardly” got him fired because someone might have thought the word, meaning “cheap,” was a racial slur, is:

“No one should be criticized or penalized because someone takes racial, ethnic, religious or other offense at their conduct or speech due to the ignorance, bias or misunderstanding by the offended party.”

The Second Niggardly Principle imagined a scenario in which that worker with the good vocabulary, now restored to his job,  decided to use the word niggardly at every opportunity, in the presence of those who were most offended by it. His response to any criticism of his aggressive use of a word he knew bothered some of his co-workers—just because of the way the word sounds, and the uncomfortable associations they had to that sound when uttered by a white man—was to say, “Well, you’re just infringing on my right to free speech, you know. And you are discriminating against me, presuming ill will when in fact I am doing nothing that is either wrong or harmful.” This would be unkind, unreasonable and insensitive conduct, because nothing  required him to use a word that he knew was, reasonably or not, going to upset his co-workers and be perceived, accurately or not, as a deliberately disrespectful act. Thus the Second Niggardly Principle Two comes in, holds:

“When an individual or group can accomplish its legitimate objectives without engaging in speech or conduct that will offend individuals whose basis for the supposed offense is emotional, mistaken or ignorant, but is not malicious and is based on well-established impulses of human nature, it is unethical to intentionally engage in such speech or conduct.”

In relation to the proposed New York City mosque near the site of 9-11, the SNP suggests that as irrational and unfair as the violent objections of many in the community were (Geller was the ringleader in the protests), the deliberate provocation of building a mosque there was unethical unless this was literally the only place where the mosque could be built. Otherwise, it was a gratuitous finger in the eye of 9-11 victims that served no purpose other than to provoke.

4. The most blatant breach of the The Second Niggardly Principle was the misbegotten inspiration for Geller “contest,” Everybody Draw Muhammad Day. This was a response to the South Park fiasco, and an ethically tone-deaf one. I wrote:

“All Muslims didn’t threaten “South Park,” a few Muslims did. Intentionally offending all Muslims by portraying the prophet Muhammad is gratuitously mean-spirited and disrespectful. The way to make the point that America insists on free expression is to embolden some of our more lily-livered institutions (the media, academia) to  exhibit some fortitude and sense of principle when free expression is under attack. It is not to cause random, wide-spread discomfort to every Muslim in the world. The United States stands for diversity and respect for all religions. If a comic, or a satirist, or a critic chooses to do otherwise, that is legitimate, protected expression, even if it is offensive.  Urging everyone to be offensive, however, violates ethical principles to support Constitutional ones.”

5. This applies to Geller’s event too. In one respect, her event is more admirable than thousands of cartoonists scattered around the glove submitting blasphemous cartoons, which was grandstanding without risk. If the point is to say, “You can’t scare us!,” at least Geller’s contestants were presenting themselves as targets.

6. The worst of the SNP principle violators was, of course, Rev. Terry Jones, who happily got some people abroad killed in riots because he thought burning the Koran was a good way to really offend Muslims. I wrote:

“Silly me: I’m still stuck in that ethical rut that holds that we should try not to be gratuitously disrespectful to the feelings and beliefs of others, even when the others may not be completely respectful of us. If there is a really good reason, that’s a different matter, and really good reasons can range from artistic expression to a search for truth to a really funny joke. Just doing it to annoy a group, or because we have a right to do it, or because we don’t understand why anyone should mind, are not good reasons.But I’m sure all you self-righteous cartoonists out there can distinguish your stunt from what Rev. Jones wants to do, because he appears to be the kind of religious zealot they make fun of on The Daily Show, the Daily Show liked “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” and his protest is slam-dunk wrong and irresponsible, an act of bigotry, not protest. Yet his stated logic, purpose and motivation are identical to yours.


7. The Garland attack made Geller the symbol of other cultures seeking to muzzle American speech, and our duty to resist it. Even if it was speech that was unnecessary, ugly and intentionally offensive, a proper symbol she is, just as the martyred Charlie Hebdo cartoonists had to be supported by anyone who understands the importance of free speech, whether their cartoons were hateful of not. (Not displaying this understanding: Gary Trudeau and President Obama, among others. Also Hillary Clinton, who, lest we forget, grovelled to Muslims by condemning a tasteless anti-anti-Islamic YouTube video, essentially apologizing publicly for the First Amendment, saying,

“Let me state very clearly — and I hope it is obvious — The United States government had nothing to do with this video. We absolutely reject its content and message. I know it’s hard for some people to understand why the United States cannot or does not just prevent these kinds of reprehensible videos from ever seeing the light of day.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, your next President of the United States!


8. No, Greta Van Susteran, Geller was not being irresponsible because police would be placing themselves in harm’s way to protect her and her fellow anti-Muslim protesters. “It’s one thing for someone to stand up for the First Amendment and put his own you-know-what on the line, but here, those insisting they were defending the First Amendment were knowingly putting officers’ lives on the line — the police,” said Greta on her Fox show. You mean like King’s Freedom Marchers having to be protected by police? Allowing controversial protests to go on without bloodshed is a well-established job of the police. No, Donald Trump—speaking of yechhh“provoking and taunting people” is what you call protests by people you don’t agree with.  What do you mean, “this country has enough problems right now”? The threat to the First Amendment presented by Islamic crazies and cowardly companies, newspapers and elected officials lacking the courage to oppose them is one of those problems. No,  Douglas Athas, the Garland Mayor, you don’t comprehend democracy.  “Her actions put my police officers, my citizens and others at risk,” you say? So do you advocate the heckler’s veto on a grand scale, as in “threaten violence against the speaker, and the speaker is obligated to shut up, because it inconveniences the democracy’s government that is obligated to protect our rights” “Her program invited an incendiary reaction,” you say? So did the Lincoln-Douglas debates, gay pride marches, labor rallies in the 1890s, and abolition rallies.  Who taught you that speech had a duty to avoid angry dissent? “She picked my community, which does not support in any shape, passion or form, her ideology,” you say? So I guess demonstrations for integrated schools and allowing blacks to vote should have only been allowed in the communities that already supported them, right?

What an idiot.

As I said, it’s amazing that the First Amendment has survived so long, with ignorant, irresponsible dimwits like this guy having the responsibility to protect it.

Let me close by quoting Ken White of Popehat, as passionate a defender of free speech as there is on the web, at the end of his epic takedown of an awful newspaper article using the Garland shooting to argue for new limits on expression. Ken wrote in part…

You can talk to me all day about how Geller is a nasty, scary nutjob, and I’m unlikely to disagree much. But that has no bearing on whether her speech is, or should be, protected. We don’t need a First Amendment to protect the soothing and the sensible….Speech should not be banned because it is “provocative” …Accepting that premise gives every hothead in the world the right to control our speech by indulging their subjective reactions to it. [The authors] are exploring whether drawing Mohammad should be permitted, but it’s only at the whim of violent people that their question is so narrow. Nothing restrains Muslims (or anti-gay protestors, or abortion opponents, or Democrats) from cultivating a much broader list of speech that makes them violently angry. Established First Amendment exceptions are carefully defined and objective, but “provocation” as a measure of censorship cedes all authority to the offended and provoked. Can people who react violently to speech — to cartoons — be expected to be judicious in selecting the topics that will provoke them to aggression? [The authors] are effectively inviting people to be more violent in order to control what speech is permissible.

Addendum: Worth reading are a clear, unequivocal, scholarly debunking of the imaginary “hate speech” exception to free speech by Eugene Volokh in the Washington Post, and a fatuous editorial in the fatally biased New York Times, with a headline that Prof. Volokh explained is a false dichotomy.

29 thoughts on “The Garland, Texas Shooting, Free Speech and Ethics

  1. I agree with most of your analysis. This is the only correction I would note:
    It’s one thing for someone to stand up for the First Amendment and put his own you-know-what on the line, but here, those insisting they were defending the First Amendment were knowingly putting officers’ lives on the line — the police,” said Greta on her Fox show. You mean like King’s Freedom Marchers having to be protected by police? Allowing controversial protests to go on without bloodshed is a well-established job of the police.

    The Freedom March protestors had to be protected *from* the police, by federal troops. The police actually killed several peacefully protesting people.

  2. Geller, I would guess, chose Texas for a reason. Specifically, every third person in Texas carries a hand-gun. Since the jihadist muslims seem to have a propensity for AK-47’s, which are a bit hard to conceal, the outcome was pre-ordained. Since Garland is a bedroom community for Dallas, it’s mayor is likely not even from Texas and does not share the average Texan’s zeal for fire arms or willingness to use them. I can guarantee you, however, that Texas cops are not going to put up with an attempted massacre, and are GOOD shots. Going after any event in Texas which has police security is an exercise in futility, and likely a suicidal one. Not that the average muslim would care.

  3. As a case study on Islamic terrorism, there are some interesting points in this attack.

    •Two Muslim terrorists with body armor and AK-47’s attack and event, but were stopped by one traffic cop armed with a pistol and an unarmed security guard (who was wounded).

    •Even though the terrorists were on a watch list, they acquired body armor and AK-47’s, then made their way to a terrorism hotspot without any of our federal agencies noticing. Despite massive, privacy and rights-invading surveillance methods, they didn’t notice.

    •This attack was on the order of magnitude of the Charlie Hebdo attack (number of terrorists and armament), but very little damage was done.

    •The attack was not stopped by the paramilitary SWAT team. It was not stopped by officers in MRAP’s with machine guns. It was stopped by a standard patrol officer with his standard-issue sidearm.

    So, the surveillance culture was ineffective, but a standard terrorist attack was stopped by our standard police officer. Special paramilitary training and equipment weren’t necessary. Good marksmanship was (headshots were required because of the body armor). With vigilance, our society can withstand such attacks with just our standard police culture in place. We don’t have to trade our freedoms for safety. We can have both.

    • I think the intended targets were more lucky than they were saved by good preparation. If this attack really was a work of an established terrorist organization like ISIS, odds are extremely high the next attack will result in more harm to the intended targets than happened in Garland.

      • The police were on alert. You also are assuming that this isn’t how established terrorist groups like ISIS work. This was a pretty well-prepared attack. They had AK-47’s, they had body armor. If this had happened in an undefended city, it would have resulted in a lot of casualties. I haven’t seen a report of exactly what happened yet, but I did see a picture that appeared to be someone placing a LOT of evidence markers up for shell casings.

        I kind of wonder if we should stage events like this on purpose. Do something outrageously offensive to smoke out the violent jihadists and draw them to an area that is prepared for them (like Texas). Think of it like a bug zapper.

        • “Come see the prophet Mohammed (piss be upon him) sodomized by a wild boar ! One night only. Free admission to all guests who present a burning Qu’ran at the ticket booth. Allah will be serving drinks in the VIP lounge after the show.”

          • One night only, inside this ready-for-demolition warehouse in the middle of an empty parking lot! Join us at the Gathering of Unarmed Mohammed-cartoonists and Educated Girls! No guns allowed, not enough exits!

  4. This incident and the attendant free speech issues has made me wonder if people would have been happier if the terrorists had actually accomplished their objective and killed the cartoonists or Geller. I think the response to this is instructive and alarming. It’s not going to be a very pleasant future here in the US if we don’t get our free speech rights reconnected to reality. The first amendment is very clearly written and has managed to withstand a lot of lefty tinkering lately, but it’s looking grim for the future.

  5. I don’t think Geller’s event was slam-dunk unethical. In fact, it may have been necessary. The radical Islamists are the worst kind of bullies, and they’re steadily pushing us, as a culture, into a corner.

    Personally, I’ve been pushed into a corner like that before — the kind of situation where being silent or backing down means someone is going to take it as license to attack you or hurt someone you’re bound to protect. At that point, throwing some punches of your own is the only ethical thing you can do. (For the record, this has happened twice in my life; I attacked suddenly and gave it everything I had, and my enemies went down hard.)

    Since the people and institutions who should stand up to the barbaric bullies of radical Islam are too cowardly or too stupid, it’s up to people like Pamela Geller to make that point.

    Or maybe it’s up to us. They won’t go away on their own — inaction just emboldens them. At the end of the day, there’s no way *not* to offend these people and retain our own integrity. I don’t know if the Second Niggardly Principle (which is a great label in so many ways) applies in that case.

    • I know exactly what you mean, from personal experience, about the need to destroy bullies quickly and decisively. Your point about Islam, too. You only have to look at Europe to see the predicted patterns (past this percentage of population density, Muslims start doing such and such) at work.

  6. I think you and I have hashed out our feelings about Everyone Draw Mohammad Day as far as they’ll go. I’m actually surprised it’s come up again. I don’t think even prominent atheists who championed it back in the day are still doing it. (It’s not even May 20th yet, which was the original date, if I remember correctly).

    I participated three times (two of which have made it to this blog), maybe I will a fourth this time because of the renewed interest, but all I can really hope is that someone out there sees my drawing and understands why I did it.

  7. By George Parry

    In 1987, Andres Serrano submerged a crucifix in a glass of his own urine and took a picture. Entitled “Piss Christ,” the photograph won first place in a contest sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.

    In 1996, another avant-garde artist, Chris Ofili, smeared elephant dung on a portrait of the Blessed Mother and displayed it in a government-funded Brooklyn museum.

    And so the stage was set for the ensuing nightmare of Christian terror and violence that descended on the American art community.

    Just kidding. Nothing of the sort happened. There were no canonical death warrants issued and no attempts on the lives of the artists or anyone else associated with these presentations.

    To be sure, Christians objected to “Piss Christ” and the feces-covered Holy Virgin. And they rightfully wondered why their tax dollars had been used to promote these blasphemies. But their objections and questions were condescendingly dismissed by the secular left in the media and intelligentsia. As one prominent art critic sniffed, Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” was “deliberately provocative” in order to “jolt viewers into an expanded frame of reference, and perhaps even toward illumination.”

    As if in one voice, the mainstream media and self-anointed intelligentsia argued that antiquated religious sensitivities must not be allowed to interfere with either an artist’s free expression or his right to government funding regardless of how offensive his work may be to Christians.

    Well, it seems that things have changed.

    In Garland, Texas, on Sunday, two radical Muslims died trying to replicate the Charlie Hebdo massacre by mounting an armed attack on a “draw Mohammed” cartoon contest. We are not talking about drawings of Mohammed dunked in urine or smeared with animal dung. No, the gunmen apparently deemed the mere drawing of Mohammed to be an offense punishable by death.

    What has been the response of the liberal media to this act of lunacy? Have the talking heads come to the defense of the cartoonists’ right of free expression in a pluralistic society? Has anyone publicly observed that drawings of Mohammed might “jolt” Muslims “into an expanded frame of reference” or “illumination”? Far from it. The overall media consensus has been to blame the intended murder victims for recklessly provoking the terrorists. Such provocation, we are told, is unacceptable and irresponsible behavior given the risk of retaliation by offended radical Muslims.

    By this bizarre logic, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Selma marchers should be condemned for instigating the melee on the Edmund Pettus bridge. Same for the three murdered civil-rights workers in Mississippi, the victims of Bull Connor’s police dogs, and anyone else who has taken a stand that might irritate violence-prone people.

    For the mainstream media and chattering classes, dumping on peaceful, law-abiding Christians is good, safe sport. But pointing the finger of blame at murderous Muslim fanatics? Well, let’s not get carried away. Rather than draw the ire of radical Muslims by firmly and unequivocally condemning the attack, the infotainment industry has concentrated its attention on the provocative nature of the draw-Mohammed contest. After all, like a drunken, immodestly dressed rape victim, weren’t the draw-Mohammed contestants just asking for it?

    Better to question the wisdom of cartoonists exercising their rights than to acknowledge and vigorously confront and expose the elephant in the room, i.e., that there is a disturbingly large number of radical Muslims in this country who oppose our Constitution and who believe that murder is an appropriate sanction for those who offend Islam. That, of course, is the real story behind the attack in Texas. But to grapple with that might inflame those radicals and pose a risk to careers and corporate profits, or result in expulsion from the preening ranks of the politically correct.

    All of which leads to this question: Given their pusillanimous double standard, why should any reasonable or serious person believe, respect, or credit the self-serving mainstream media?


    • Somebody once told me that she was more terrified of fundamentalist Christians than she was of ANY Islamic Terrorists. I asked her when was the last time she had been shot at by a Baptist? She had no answer for that, and shortly thereafter, began shooting down liberal statements made by the rest of her staff.

  8. Jack,
    “Thus South Park and Comedy Central breached their duties to the nation, the culture and free speech by censoring a satirical animated series after receiving radical Islamic threats.”

    How is South Park culpable? They wrote and animated the show, it was Comedy Central who ultimately pulled the plug (over Matt Stone and Tre Parker’s protestations). Also, this doesn’t change much but, to my understanding, it wasn’t AFTER threats but rather in expectation of them that they finally decided to censor the episode.


    • That would have been worse, but no, they received a threat first.

      Stone and Parker didn’t object, didn’t fight, didn’t argue breach of contract…they’re completely complicit, and while I respect their talent, “bold” satirists who run and hide when anyone threatens then disgrace the First Amendment.

  9. Can I ask your opinion on “Fighting Words”?

    Chris Cuomo has stuck his foot firmly in his mouth when he tweeted “it doesn’t. hate speech is excluded from protection. don’t just say you love the constitution…read it” Which was both inaccurate and prickish, but he followed that up ‘explaining’ that he was referring to Chaplinsky.

    It got me thinking, Chaplinsky argues that as opposed to speech, fighting words are an action, but they’re still spoken words. People can argue over what the second amendment means until the cows come home, it’s written poorly, but the first amendment is very clear:

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

    So was Chaplinsky wrong? Or am I missing something? And does it apply in a situation like this?

    • Chaplinsky’s broad language, as with may cases that old (1942), have been narrowed considerably by subsequent SCOTUS decisions. It is the “fighting words’ exception, ruling that the First Amendment doesn’t protect words “which, by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” In the intervening decades, SCOTUS has interpreted “immediate breach of the peace” to mean face to face insults. If Geller were holding her contest in the community of Little Al Qaeda, for example, that would be fighting words, because immediate violence would by imminent. There’s a great explanation of all this here.

  10. Damn fools! Don’t blame me for your menopause when watching another REDNECK nabbed and beheaded in Orange Gitmo nightgown on Fox.
    wazzamatter, Jade Helm Bozos ? Afraid to shit with the big dogs? PSST: ‘In America, We Shoot Muslims and Blacks in the Back’
    Don’t you get it? Thanks to Monsanto that dumb you down and turn you morbidly obese to get it. It ain’t Freedom of Speech that Pamela Geller and Geert Wilders were sporting for sex in Garland Dallas. It’s a Zionist Provocation. They’re importing ISIS down south. The DUO are fucking America as we speak at daylight. Congrats….

    [FROM THE MODERATOR: The rest of this cretinous rant has been removed. I’ve banned this fool, and this slipped through. I’ll keep spamming him until he goes away…don’t respond, because when I remove the post, I remove the reply. I’m leaving this snippet—what a maroon!—for flavor, and to preserve the comments to it so far. A mind is a terrible thing to waste…]

    • Tell you what you do, rag-head…you send all of your brain-fucked, AK-toting idiots on down to Texas, and us REDNECK shit-kickers will, well, kick them Shits all the way back to Baghdad. I could go on, but you ain’t worth thinkin’ up the curse words, nor is Mohammed.

      • I have to apologize to all concerned. I normally do NOT use that language, either in a post or in general conversation. My belief was that such lunacy deserved a Scott Jacobs type response (you didn’t know him, Joe, but when he got wound up, somebody better duck). Unfortunately, I found out part-way into the comment that I am not as good at it as he was, and could not even sound convincing. Sorry again.

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