Why progressives need to understand that free speech does not only protect friendly speech

By now, I’m sure many know about the “Draw Mohammed” contest in Texas that ended in a shooting. Pamela Geller and her organization (American Freedom Defense Initiative) held a “contest” for ten-thousand dollars to anyone who could draw an image of Mohammed. Oddly enough, there are many on the left and the right who disagreed with Geller’s tactics, and are attacking her and her group for what they were doing.

While Geller and her hate group are clearly provocative in their tactics, I disagree with those who say that Geller and her group should not have held the contest. I know many of my progressive friends and colleagues will disagree with my opinion, but I think Geller and her group had every right to do what they did.

What Geller did was in bad taste, certainly, but the First Amendment does not just protect friendly speech. Offensive speech is to be protected to, even if this speech is meant to be provocative toward others.

Bill O’Reilly is one of the main figures on the right to criticize Geller and her group for what they were doing. Honestly, I expected an outpouring of support from the right, but the support has been mixed. O’Reilly has said that what Geller did was “stupid” and that she is merely poking Muslims for a negative reaction.

While, that might be true, it doesn’t mean we can’t be “provocative” to members of another religion. Geller and her group has every right to be provocative towards Muslims, and in no way should progressives make the case that “provocative” speech in this case is not warranted.

I understand Muslims are not a powerful group in America, and that Geller did what she did in pure hatred to Muslims alone. If someone asked Geller what her opinion on Piss Christ is, odds are she wouldn’t be in favor of it. That is beside the point, however.

While I don’t follow the philosophy of unnecessary provocation, freedom of speech protects many aspects of speech, including provocative speech. My problem with O’Reilly attacking Geller is not that I think Geller or her group are great. It’s a precedent issue.

If we say that we should not allow provocative speech against Muslims, why should it stop there? If we can’t criticize one religion with provocative speech, why not all the others? What’s to stop Christians, who love to play the victim, from making the case that their doctrine and beliefs cannot be criticized? Nothing.

There is a slippery slope here. While Geller did what she did in bad taste, she still has every right to do what she did. We should not allow insulting religion to be separate from the First Amendment. That opens a can-of worms that would do much more harm than good.

Here is a video link that elaborates more on this topic. Freedom of speech protects all aspects of speech, not just speech we consider convenient to our personal beliefs.


  1. See the delusion? Read the title of her book, now Judaism is tightly woven into American life, so does she howl about the Judaism of America? No because that will not cause trouble and make her famous or get folks following her.

  2. It’s a ludicrous stretch to “defend” a woman whose disingenuous call for “free speech” is made from a platform (she built) designed to deny freedom of religion and freedom of speech to Muslims. #FindABetterWay

  3. It seems that every religion harbors murderous fanatics. “Hate speech” is just anything that someone, somewhere, is bound to find “offensive”, which is just about anything. Mohammed was a highwayman and a child molester, and that was perfectly acceptable in his culture, but it is “hate speech” to mention it today.
    Religion is a reliable index of human misery and ignorance, an absurdity that excuses atrocity. It is a contagious mental disease, and those afflicted should be quarantined until a cure can be found.

  4. It was stupid but not the type of thing people should arm themselves with the intent to murder for. Protest and counter protest. Debate. Argue. Cajole. But kill? No Way!

  5. Julian, You’re missing the point. First, the overwhelming media and progressive response has been supporting her right to free speech but criticizing her provocative and hateful actions. But the point is not freedom of speech but hate and hate baiting actions intended to offend and provoke the Muslim community. That’s the discussion, not the first amendment right to do so. We get that part.

  6. Yes it is protected speech. But it is offensive and can lead to violence. For some, religion–all religion–has become a scapegoat for everything that’s going wrong in the world–from time immemorial: the new atheists are at the head of that fundamentalistic thinking.

    Legal is one thing; ethical is another. Don’t be surprised (and unnacountable) when you are “provocative” in this way (read: offensive and unethical) and the extreme elements of those who feel slandered open fire, literally.

    I don’t condone violence–including wronged residents of Baltimore who can’t take it anymore and decide they’re justified in looting. But I think it is disingenuous for those who wrap themselves in free speech jingoism to then believe that they aren’t implicated in the tragedy of violent response. It’s akin to a feminist ideologue encouraging (or provoking) a lone female college student to enter a frat house at 2 am during a party to make a statement; to enter an attic bedroom with a drunken male, close the door, fall into bed, say resolutely “no” when the obvious (however horrible and illegal) occurs, and then claim categorical victim-hood.

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