NPR ombudsman: Why should the Constitution protect making fun of someone's prophet?

The best part of this, as many have noted online today, is his perfunctory denunciation of the “bombing” of Charlie Hebdo’s HQ.

An ombudsman is supposed to be the readers’ advocate within the publication that employs him. You would think, as a baseline, that would mean advocating for greater reader access to information collected by NPR — like, say, reproductions of the images for which Charlie Hebdo was, uh, “bombed.” And as a journalist first and foremost, he has a professional interest in not handing new powers to the government to censor “unhelpful” information. But oh well:

We in the news media—in different ways between new and old—are exaggerating ethics at the expense of maintaining a civilized and free society.

We must remember this: Ethics change. And they are different in different democracies. Ethics are professional standards, not deeper morals, which can change, too, but far more slowly. Morals come from a society’s soul, for lack of a better word. Ethics come from our more fickle brains, tied to the changing ways of, dare I say it, a business. And yet many in the news media are rushing to man the barricades for certain ethical interpretations of press freedom and independence as if they were absolutes—immutable principles worth dying for. Literally…

In this case, the competing social and constitutional demand is the control of hate speech in the interests of social cohesion, without which the very idea of a nation is impossible. Look at the sectarian bloodbath that is the Middle East. Or look at the tensions in China, Myanmar, Ukraine, Nigeria, the Balkans, and elsewhere. Nothing guarantees that different peoples can live together, or that nations will remain as we know them…

I do not know if American courts would find much of what Charlie Hebdo does to be hate speech unprotected by the Constitution, but I know—hope?—that most Americans would. It is one thing to lampoon popes, imams, rabbis and other temporal religious leaders of this world; it is quite another to make fun, in often nasty ways, of their prophets and gods. The NPR editors were right not to reprint any of the images.

A few things. One: “Hate speech” is fully protected under the First Amendment. Hate crimes can receive heightened sentences, but mere speech that insults another almost never qualifies as a crime. For now. Two: Although it’s unstated, presumably there’s a high speech/low speech distinction being made here. Cartoons mocking Mohammed are low speech and prohibitable; a scholarly book questioning Mohammed’s teachings is high speech and therefore — hopefully — permissible, although I guess we’ll find out when the time comes. You guys are willing to lose, say, “South Park” in the name of “social cohesion,” aren’t you? Three: If the left ever succeeds in smuggling an exception for (Islamic) blasphemy into the First Amendment, the law will eventually criminalize mockery of temporal religious leaders as well. Logically, “social cohesion” would require it. All it would take to get this guy to bend on his personal red line, I assume, would be for, say, Shiite fanatics to shoot up a magazine’s offices for goofing on the Ayatollah Khamenei. The violence of the reaction is evidence of how grave the injury inflicted by the insult is; naturally we should prohibit insults to living religious leaders too to prevent any more social tumult.

The dumbest thing about this, as Fred Bauer notes, is the idea that stronger hate-speech laws mean greater social cohesion. In reality it means the opposite. As different factions lobby for hate-speech protection for their personal sacred cows, the rest of the population will resent having its speech rights curtailed, generating anger at those factions. And each time one group wins a legal battle, the government will be pressured to extend the same protections to others. E.g., if mocking Mohammed is unprotected by the First Amendment, mocking Jesus will be too. Go back and look at the examples in the excerpt of countries dealing with social unrest. All of them — the Middle East, China, and Myanmar especially — have speech rights far less robust than America’s. How’s that working out for “social cohesion” there?? Should we want to be more like those societies, by criminalizing speech, or should we maybe stick with the “suck it up and ignore it” approach to “hate speech” that we’ve been using for most of the last hundred years?