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The Art of Freedom: Constitutionality of Depicting Muhammad

September 25th, 2015

6549779863_8b5b127642What could have been used to open a dialogue over the unique balance of free speech and freedom of religion proffered by the United States Constitution turned violent this past February, when five men opened fire on security guards at a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest being held in Garland, Texas.  Depicting Muhammad is often seen as an act of extreme offense to those involved in Islam. While there may be some who argue that the event was overly provocative, this article will only focus on the idea of the event in abstract.  Specifically, it will address the question that is running through the heads of many Americans: why was the reaction so violent?  In a nation that has seen its fair share of protests, both peaceful and full of unrest, to express an opinion in the manner that the gunmen chose is almost certainly un-American as it fails to thoughtfully express any discourse other than “my way or (your) death.”  Even in the most fiery speeches of our founding fathers, the sentiment of “liberty or death” was most certainly a personal one, not a threat to use against one’s opponent.  This then begs the question of whether there should even be a seat at the proverbial table for those who may share the gunmen’s not-so-artfully expressed viewpoint.

The Triumvirate: Free Speech, Hate Speech, and Religious Freedom

The United States has a long history of disagreement over what, exactly, is meant by the words that are memorialized in the Constitution.  Overarching themes are easy to see, none being less clear than the rights of citizens to free speech and religious freedom.  The argument over what these phrases mean with regard to an average modern day citizen’s behavior involve a much deeper examination.  The Supreme Court has famously upheld the right to free speech, even if it causes offense to the sensibilities of others.  Speech is especially protected whenever it relates to criticism of the government and advocacy of unpopular ideas, and is only curtailed in the most egregious situations where the government’s interest outweighs that of the citizen’s free speech rights.  Hate speech, while still protected, can sometimes fall within this latter category due to its tendency to be akin to “fighting words,” or words that incite violent reaction from others and have no social value.

When it comes to speech as it is considered in the Constitution, some actions are also protected.  For example, the art involved with drawing a deity, prophet, or other being is often protected as a mechanism being used by the artist to exercise his or her right to free speech.  In fact, the satire of many political cartoons, while considered offensive by some, is one of the most protected forms of speech in which an American may engage.  In this instance, a person’s right to practice their religion does not trump the artist’s right to free speech, regardless of how vitriolic the reaction may be.  In this instance, it arguably would be appropriate to say that the comparison of the two rights is like “apples to oranges.”  This being said, some who witnessed or heard about the angry, violent “response to art” referenced above may wonder whether the attack was merely just an attack from violent individuals with a violent agenda, and not related to the constitutional freedoms at all.

The answer to this question and many others involving the line between free speech and religious freedom may never have a final answer.  However, Universal Life Church Case Law will continue to monitor any advances in all areas of constitutional law.

Photo Credit: ScaarAT via Compfight cc

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