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, and a principled argument can be made that the editors of the Herald exercised faulty judgment. The paper may claim no exemption from scrutiny. But such criticism must accept the basic tenets of free speech in a liberal democracy.
Donald Downs and Kenneth Mayer are University of Wisconsin professors of political science. They express these views as members of the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights, a group of UW faculty members who advocate academic freedom and whose members join in supporting this essay. Professors Steve Bauman (mathematics), Larry Kahan (biomolecular chemistry), W. Lee Hansen (economics emeritus), Lester Hunt (philosophy), Anatoly Khazanov (anthropology), Marshall Onellion (physics), Stephen Robinson (engineering), John Sharpless (history) and Kenneth Thompson (education) wish that their endorsement of these views be noted for the record.