WASHINGTON -- Why are conservatives and liberals not united in defending free speech? The estimable Bret Stephens, in his Wall Street Journal column this week, raises the question and suggests conservatives and liberals give the matter some thought.
What has provoked him is the plight of Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who has just been denied entrance to the United Kingdom on the grounds that he is an "undesirable person." What rendered him so is his documentary, "Fitna," which lifts lines from the Quran and cites them as the sacred justification for acts of Islamic terror. Wilders also is being prosecuted for "hate speech" in the Netherlands on account of "Fitna." Supposedly, his documentary offended the religious sensibilities of Muslims, which is enough to get a work of intellectual expression banned in Europe.
Stephens points out that it has been precisely 20 years since Andres Serrano dunked a crucifix in a glass of urine, photographed the sacrilege, and called it art. The National Endowment for the Arts awarded him $15,000 for his creativity. Frankly, I think he might have as profitably applied for a grant at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. In fact, with the Obama administration now in power, I suggest that Serrano give it a try, assuming he has not passed on from some horrible disease.
Stephens also points out that 20 years ago, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini placed a fatwa on the head of celebrated left-wing author Salman Rushdie for his book "The Satanic Verses," which, according to the art critic Khomeini, blasphemed Islam. This was one of the rare instances when the Rev. Khomeini and I were in agreement. I, too, found the book appalling, though I would not issue a fatwa, even if I were certified as an official fatwa installer. A fatwa could get a person killed. I settled on giving Rushdie the J. Gordon Coogler Award for the Worst Book of the Year. Rushdie, who publicly traduced Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, gladly accepted the bodyguards she gave him, though he never showed up for the awards ceremony.
Things have changed in the U.K. Now Labour has replaced Thatcher's Tories, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown denied Wilders entry into the country. For my part, I actually watched "Fitna" in the comfort of New York City a few months back and found more artistic merit in the documentary than in the aforementioned works by Serrano and Rushdie. Moreover, to my surprise, Wilders is not a wild man or a rustic but a gentleman. He deserves to have his speech protected, as did Serrano and Rushdie, though in Serrano's case, I do not see why the American taxpayer had to support his afflatus.
No thoughtful conservative I know called for either Serrano or Rushdie to be banned. We objected to paying for Serrano, but denying him the coverage of the First Amendment was against our commitment to freedom of speech. During the Serrano controversy, liberals pretty much defended his First Amendment rights and went further, insisting that the National Endowment for the Arts was justified and perhaps even enlightened in funding him. So are the liberals defending Wilders today? Are they alarmed by Europe's suppression of free speech? This is an issue that both conservatives and liberals should agree on.
What is called "hate speech" is, in a free society, as equal to First Amendment protection as disgusting speech or blasphemy -- though presumably there are places where hate speech ought not to be tolerated, for instance, grammar schools and high schools. There, children and young people are not yet full citizens. They are immature, and their ideas are not fully developed. Their outbursts would be disruptive. Where the students are adults -- say, at universities -- the First Amendment should hold.
Actually, I fear liberals will not join Stephens and me in defending Wilders' rights or even the rights of Rushdie. My explanation for this is not a happy one. In recent years, it has seemed to me that American liberals and conservatives do not want to be in agreement. They want to be at war with each other. This is particularly true of liberals. On the First Amendment, they find qualifiers to part company from libertarian conservatives. We see it in the liberals' support of speech codes at universities. There, all advocates of free speech allowed communists to teach and to stir up revolution, even during the Cold War. Now free expression is policed by speech codes, lest someone offend touchy ethnics or religious people, preferably non-Western religious people. Serrano never was accused of a "hate crime."
Free speech is a tricky issue once we begin to limit it. People can be very subjective about what is protected speech. Consider Wilders. For all his talk of free speech, he calls the Quran a "fascist book." He equates it with "Mein Kampf" and would ban it. Wilders is free to call the Quran anything he wants to call it. Yet he cannot ban it, not in the United States; possibly in Europe, but not in the Land of the Free.