This morning on CNN, former White House press secretary Jay Carney stuck to his position that Charlie Hebdo magazine had gone overboard with some 2012 cartoons lampooning the prophet Muhammad. Those cartoons, published after the terrorist attacks on the U.S. diplomatic installation in Benghazi, caused enough of an uproar that France closed embassies in some Muslim countries. In a briefing with reporters at the time, Carney said, “Well, we are aware that a French magazine published cartoons featuring a figure resembling the prophet Muhammad, and obviously, we have questions about the judgment of publishing something like this. We know that these images will be deeply offensive to many and have the potential to be inflammatory.”
Those comments have sprung to life again in light of yesterday’s tragedy — the killings of 12 people at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a publication that frequently poked fun at Islam and Muhammad. Secretary of State John Kerry proclaimed, “I agree with the French imam who today called the slain journalists martyrs for liberty.”
In the aftermath of the journalists’ slaughter, in other words, we heard an absolutist affirmation of freedom from Kerry. At the time that their work was causing turmoil, however, we heard a wobbly affirmation of freedom from Carney.
CNN host Alisyn Camerota homed in on Carney’s cautious 2012 remarks as she interviewed him on CNN’s morning program “New Day.” Here’s the key exchange:
Camerota: You seemed to be suggesting in 2012, and you’re not alone, that Charlie Hebdo should have pulled back a little bit. That they shouldn’t have published cartoons that were as offensive or as pornographic and vulgar as what they were doing.
Carney: Well, I think that’s right and that’s a judgment call in the sense that … if you’re trying to combat through a form of media — print, cartoons, TV — extremism or ideas that you think are damaging, in this case, those propounded by Islamic extremists, you know — What’s the best way to do that? Was this the best way to do it? Did this further the cause in the effort to tamp down and beat back Islamic extremism? Or did it just provoke a negative reaction and make average Muslims who would never resort to violence feel offended? And was that a useful way to go, and was that a use of good judgment?
Before going any further, it must be said that Carney, who is now a CNN analyst, did stick up for the First Amendment and deplore violence, both in his chat with Camerota and in his 2012 comments as press secretary. For instance, he told Camerota, “Our laws are there to protect negative speech, to protect offensive speech, to protect the speech that we don’t like and makes us feel uncomfortable. It’s not there to protect the conventional speech or acceptable speech.” And from the Sept. 19, 2012, press briefing:
We’ve spoken repeatedly about the importance of upholding the freedom of expression that is enshrined in our Constitution. In other words, we don’t question the right of something like this to be published; we just question the judgment behind the decision to publish it. And I think that that’s our view about the video that was produced in this country and has caused so much offense in the Muslim world.
That “video” is a reference to a trailer for an anti-Islam film produced by Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, which prompted riots in the Middle East and was erroneously cited as a factor in prompting the Benghazi attacks. It was in response to this unrest that Charlie Hebdo published its cartoons of Muhammad.
In an op-ed, The Washington Post’s Charles Lane addressed the folly of sticking up for free expression while expressing misgivings about what’s being expressed: “[T]heir mixed messages unavoidably implied that the rioters had a valid point, which is never something you want to imply — at least not if you understand how dangerous it is to give violent extremists a veto over what your citizens can and cannot say.”
And New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait delivered this nice rebuttal to Carney’s issue-straddling attempt: “The right to blaspheme religion is one of the most elemental exercises of political liberalism. One cannot defend the right without defending the practice.”
The irony is that Carney is guilty of insufficient extremism. When freedom of expression is under siege, there’s no room for caveats, for warnings of repercussions, for media criticism. We support your First Amendment rights but make those cartoons a bit blander, OK? — that’s a betrayal of the Constitution.