Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Ed Miliband’s Britain share a disdain for freedom of expression that might unduly influence others: Russia in December passed a law forbidding the propagation of “Nazi propaganda.” One of the casualties of that law was “Maus,” Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about life under the Third Reich. Because its cover displays the main characters cowering beneath a swastika, the book was pulled from store shelves. “I’m afraid that this is a harbinger of the new arbitrariness of rules in Russia,” Spiegelman told NPR. “The result will be like what happened in the obscenity rulings that closed down a lot of theater plays.”
Russia isn’t the only entity to enact ridiculously overbroad bans on swastika-related expression. Closer to home, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education recently highlighted the case of a Jewish George Washington University student who was suspended for displaying a swastika he had purchased while in India. (The symbol has a very different meaning for Hindus than it does white power types.*) The student hoped to educate his peers about the symbol’s history. Instead he got an expulsion notice.
In some cases — such as Paris, where the satirists working at Charlie Hebdo paid for their commitment to free speech with their lives or Texas, where an allegedly Islamic State sympathizing gunman opened up on a “Draw Muhammad” event — free speech is quite literally under fire. And the response from our intellectual class has been less than impressive. After the PEN American Center decided to give its Freedom of Expression of Courage award to the Charlie Hebdo staffers who martyred themselves for the cause of freedom of expression, several of PEN’s most prestigious members voiced their objections. Indeed, the critically acclaimed novelist Peter Carey suggested that supporting the freedom of expression of those who are threatened with death is little more than a “political position.”
Carey is a member of the “But Brigade,” as Salman Rushdie has dubbed those who proclaim their love for freedom of speech only to qualify it moments later by denouncing those with whom they disagree. “The moment somebody says, ‘Yes, I believe in free speech, but …’ I stop listening,” Rushdie told a crowd at Vermont’s Ira Allen Chapel in January. “ ‘I believe in free speech, but people should behave themselves. I believe in free speech, but we shouldn’t upset anybody. I believe in free speech, but let’s not go too far.’ The point about it is the moment you limit free speech, it’s not free speech. … You can’t slice it up, otherwise it ceases to be freedom. You can dislike Charlie Hebdo. Not all their drawings were funny. You can dislike [them]. But the fact that you dislike them has got nothing to do with their right to speak. The fact that you dislike them certainly doesn’t in any way excuse their murder. And the idea that within days of this murder, sections of the left as well as the right have turned against these, these fallen artists, to vilify them, is, I think, disgraceful.”
Granting the right to ban some speech while protecting the rest can lead to all sorts of odd outcomes (like, say, banning “Maus” under a law forbidding Nazi propaganda). Additionally, framing such concerns as matters of public safety rather than matters of principle empowers fringe elements and transforms the heckler’s veto into the assassins’ veto. Ironically, we make the world a more dangerous place each time we cede a sliver of speech to killers.
Now, Rushdie is probably just one of those free speech fundamentalists so hated by the Garry Trudeaus and Matt Wuerkers and Eric Posners of the world. His words likely mean little to those who make the (false) argument that there’s a distinction between “free speech” and “hate speech.” But I’m old enough to remember when it was not just the right of artists to push boundaries and make people uncomfortable: it was their sacred duty. And for those of us who value freedom of expression — for those of us who think that it is wrong to use the power of the government or the gun of a killer to silence artists and others who make people uncomfortable — these are very troubling times.