The recent upheaval in the Arab and Muslim world over a movie trailer made in the United States has many so-called champions of free speech shaking their heads.
They wonder out loud how an amateur video clip could arouse so many emotions in so many people. For them, the sanctity of free speech trumps everything else, including deliberate hateful incitement.
I oppose violence in the name of religion, no matter what the provocation. There is no justification, religious or ethical, for what has happened in many parts of the world.
In the West, we take pride in the principle of freedom of speech. We do not tolerate many restrictions on a citizen's ability to say whatever he or she wishes to say. This freedom has become an article of faith and the cornerstone of Western democracies.
But some champions of freedom of speech willingly sacrifice this sacrosanct principle on the altar of expediency, appeasement, and convenience. Here are two glaring examples.
A Swedish magazine recently published topless photos of Britain's Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William's wife. The royal family and government were not amused.
When Closer, a French magazine, published some of those pictures, the French government demanded, through a court order, that the magazine hand over all images. The court levied a fine each time the magazine republished the photos.
I don't think the French suddenly have become averse to exposed flesh, for plenty of it is on display in Paris on billboards. It appears that the French government was willing to set aside free speech to appease the British monarchy. The difference between the debates of free speech and privacy have narrowly defined borders.
The other example is the Holocaust. It is a crime to minimize or deny the Holocaust in Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Switzerland.
The Holocaust was one of the most horrific episodes in history. The unimaginable atrocities committed by the Nazis are well documented and leave no doubt in the minds of a great majority of people that the Holocaust happened with the enormity that has been reported.
A minuscule number of people either deny that the Holocaust happened or minimize its extent. These revisionists, no matter how glaring and unpalatable their assertions, should have the right to say so. Why make it a crime?
Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, holds a central place in the psyche of Muslims. They regard him as a man beyond reproach, even though they do not consider him divine.
When an insult is hurled, it causes pain and anguish to most Muslims. It affects them to their core.
But that is inconsequential to many provocateurs. They are determined to malign and belittle a towering religious figure to promote their own prejudices and their group agendas. Most of what they say is fabricated in their own fertile minds, or they parrot views expressed by others.
I wonder whether they have looked at Mohammed not through the eyes of Muslims, but in the readings of non-Muslims. If they would take the time, they would find the observations by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, George Bernard Shaw, Alphonse de La Martaine, Gustav Weil, and Thomas Carlyle -- each of whom has written about Mohammed in a positive way -- revealing.
There are two ways to face the subject of insults and the reactions such insults invoke. We could let the frenzied mobs from Jakarta to Tripoli rampage through their own cities and, in the process, destroy American properties. Or we could treat such provocation just as we treat the topless royal photos in France or the Holocaust in Europe.
Anything else from champions of freedom of speech is hypocrisy. They cannot talk out of both sides of their mouths and hide behind the flimsy fig leaf of free speech.
In 1919, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court in Schenck v. United States, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes observed that free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater and causing a panic.
For years, cartoonists and video makers have been shouting "Fire." We blame the people who react to the provocation, rather than the provocateurs who deliberately incite violence.
Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org