Free speech & public safetyGarland, Texas exhibit, terrorist attack highlight tensions between free speech and public safety

Published 7 May 2015

The Muhammad Art Exhibit in Garland, Texas, and the foiled attack on it by two Phoenix followers of ISIS, highlight the tensions between protecting Americans’ freedom of speech and preserving public safety. Some legal scholars argue that the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), the anti-Muslim hate group which organized the event, crossed the line from “defamation” to “fighting words” or “incitement,” so local officials could have prevented the event from taking place in order to protect public safety. Other scholars argue that the AFDI message, vile and repugnant though it is, is protected under the First Amendment and that the group should have been allowed to go ahead with its event.

American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), the anti-Islam group which organized the recent Muhammad Art Exhibit in Garland, Texas, knew that the exhibit was vulnerable to violence from jihadists, including individuals influenced by the Islamic State. Still, the group went ahead and hosted the event. They even paid $10,000 for extra security, alerted local law enforcement, and had a SWAT team and a bomb squad patrol the surrounding area. The two gunmen who opened fire with assault weapons outside the exhibit on Sunday, Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, both of Phoenix, were shot by a police officer.

The event and resulting attack highlight the tensions between protecting Americans’ freedom of speech and preserving public safety. Prosecutors in Texas are not likely to press charges against the conference organizers, but could local authorities have prevented the event from taking place in order to protect its participants from violence?

John Szmer, an associate professor of political science and a constitutional law expert at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, told McClatchy DC that there are two exceptions from the constitutional right to free speech — defamation and the doctrine of “fighting words” or “incitement.”

“Fighting words is the idea that you are saying something that is so offensive that it will lead to an immediate breach of the peace,” Szmer explained. “In other words, you are saying something and you should expect a violent reaction by other people.” The cartoon exhibit might have crossed the line, Szmer said. “I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect what they were doing would incite a violent reaction,” he said.

On the other hand, “fighting words can contradict the basic values that underlie freedom of speech,” Szmer said. “The views being expressed at the conference could be seen as social commentary. Political and social speech should be protected. You are arguably talking about social commentary.”

AFDI’s mission is the preservation “of freedom of speech, freedom of religion and equal rights for all,” according to its Facebook page. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which monitors racist and sectarian organizations in the United States, has categorized the organization as an anti-Muslim hate group. AFDI executive director, Pamela Geller, on her blog on Sunday justified the event, saying “The freedom of speech is under violent assault here in our nation.” She added “The question now before (us) is — will we stand and defend it, or bow to violence, thuggery, and savagery?” “This is war.”

Heidi Beirich, director of SPLC’s Intelligence Project, said that while Geller’s anti-Islam speech and activities are hateful, she was within her free speech rights to organize the exhibition in Texas. “The violence that happened is unacceptable, and as ugly as the things that Geller was saying … the fact of the matter is that she should have had the right to exercise her First Amendment rights,” said Beirich. “People may hate what she’s doing in terms of her Muslim-bashing, but that doesn’t justify the violence.”

Beirich criticized public officials who not only fail to condemn hateful viewpoints, but associate with those who promote them. The AFDI exhibit keynote speaker, Geert Wilders, a racist far-right Dutch politician who describes Islam as a fascist religion, was welcomed last week in Washington, D.C. by conservative Republican Representatives Louie Gohmert (Texas) and Steve King (Iowa). “It’s just despicable to be meeting people like that,” Beirich said. “Public officials should be exercising their First Amendment rights by saying that all Muslims are not bad.”

David Schanzer, a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, said the gunmen’s actions will end up drawing undeserved attention to AFDI’s hateful message. “Any efforts to censor them or restrict their rights will just play into their agenda, which is to antagonize and spread a pretty vile message,” Schanzer said.

The best way to counter AFDI’s hateful message is by confronting their ideas. “I think their ideas are both wrong and actually makes problems worse through their actions,” Schanzer said. Echoing Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ well-known sentiment from 1927, he added: “I say we go against them by fighting speech with more speech.”