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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, June 24, 2024

Free speech does not mandate, it enables

The controversial cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Mohammed, which were originally published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and have been the object of global protest, were re-printed in Wednesday's issue of the Primary Source under the heading: "The SOURCE must stand in solidarity with the free press of the world, and print these cartoons as a symbol of defiance against oppression and fear."


Is republication of the cartoons that sparked worldwide anger and violence what "solidarity with the free press of the world" really demands? How does the publication of these cartoons combat oppression? And is that what the Source was really trying to do?

Criticism of the decision to publish these cartoons should emphatically not be construed as an attempt to silence, oppress, threaten, or otherwise victimize the Primary Source. In fact, on such an overwhelmingly liberal campus, an outspoken conservative publication is a necessary component of a healthy campus dialogue.

But the Source's stated motivations for the cartoons' publication need to be examined closely.

First, the idea that the right to free speech mandates publication of these cartoons is senseless. The right to free speech does not mandate; it enables. The Source's contention that it "must" publish the cartoons in order to support its brethren in the international press is either moral posturing or idiocy. The principle here - a publication's right to print what it chooses - is not under dispute. But publishing these cartoons is a confused way to defend a principle. Saying that you "must" publish the cartoons to defend free speech is akin to saying you "must" attend a Ku Klux Klan rally to defend the right to assemble.

In printing these cartoons, the Primary Source has conflated the defense of a right with the glorification of a mistake. And by claiming that this glorification is about solemn, regretful solidarity with the free press - and not about opportunistically co-opting a controversy, a less noble possibility - the Source washes its hands of responsibility for the hurt and anger the re-publication of these cartoons will elicit from the Tufts community.

Such reactions are already taking place. "We fail to see how the publishing of such offensive material contributes to the overall atmosphere of the University, especially a University that is known for its tolerance of racial and religious diversity," senior Rafeya Khan, co-president of the Muslim Students Association (MSA) at Tufts, told the Daily in today's news article on the subject.

Important journalism can, and often does, elicit hurt and anger, and the press should not unduly restrain itself to accommodate people's feelings. But the republication of these cartoons in the Source is unnecessary and petty. It's also delayed: If the Source wanted to stand in solidarity with "the free press of the world," why didn't it attempt to do so in its Feb. 13 issue? Publishing the cartoons now accomplishes nothing (except for the possible instigation of a campus controversy).

Indeed, at this late stage of the storm, there is probably only one solid defense for the publication of the cartoons: the argument that the cartoons are inaccessible, and that though they are offensive, it is impossible to understand the controversy without viewing them.

That the cartoons are newsworthy is undeniable. But the argument that they are inaccessible is slightly more questionable, since a Google Image search of "Jyllands-Posten Mohammad cartoons" yields many of the images in question.

But in the end, this is not the argument the Source chose to use to defend its decision. The cartoons are hurtful to Muslims, and at this point, that is basically all they are.

Nothing new is revealed or proved by the Source's decision to publish them. The Source has not single-handedly protected free speech by choosing to publish one of its more devastating incarnations.

An articulate defense of a newspaper's right to publish material like these cartoons would have been a more useful and relevant gesture of "solidarity with the free press of the world."

As the Source put it, "publishing sacrilegious content solely for the sake of controversy is in very poor taste." It is also cheap, hurtful and self-serving. The Source has a right to be all of those things, and will probably continue to exercise it.

But let's not be taken in by the moral grandstanding. This isn't about free speech anymore; it's about responsible journalism. It stopped being about what a publication can do when the Jyllands-Posten printed the cartoons. Now, it's about what a publication should do - and what it shouldn't.

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