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Marci Hamilton

A Cartoonist Faces Backlash, in Sweden and the U.S., for Depicting Mohammed as a Dog: The First Amendment Lessons


Thursday, May 13, 2010

On Tuesday, Muslims peacefully protested outside Uppsala University in Sweden against a speech to be given by Swedish artist Lars Vilks.  The protesters had been angered by the publication in the local newspaper Nerikes Allehande, on August 18, 2007, of a single cartoon by Vilks that depicted Mohammed as a dog. 

Vilks had drawn a series of such cartoons and had attempted to have them displayed at local art galleries, but concerns regarding security led the galleries to decline.  As has become all too common, Vilks was subjected to death threats from Muslim extremists and went into hiding at one point.

The controversy occurred about a year-and –a-half after the discord over 12 Mohammed cartoons that were published by Jyllands-Posten in Denmark in early 2006.  In response to the cartoons' publication, two Danish imams demanded censorship and an apology, but they later softened their position sufficiently to have meetings with the newspaper.  Meanwhile, a number of international Muslim organizations condemned the cartoons and demanded violence.  Moreover, on January 1, 2010, an Islamic fanatic attempted to break into the home of the cartoonist, Kurt Westergaard, whose cartoon of Mohammed with a bomb in his turban was the most memorable and most widely-copied of the cartoons.

Uppsala is one of the most distinguished and oldest universities in northern Europe, and this pairing of peaceful protest and a speech by a controversial artist illustrated the best of what universities can do for societies.  But sadly, that was not the whole story at Uppsala. 

During his speech, after Vilks showed parts of an Iranian film about Islam and homosexuality, a member of the audience leapt up, yelled "Allahu Akhbar," ("Allah is the greatest") and advanced toward Vilks.  Security personnel leapt up, and in the ensuing scuffle, Vilks was head-butted and his glasses were broken, but he was not otherwise injured.  When the organizers announced that the event had been cancelled, several members of the audience cheered in Arabic.  The police took three individuals into custody.

There is a United States connection to Vilks, as well.  He is the cartoonist who was the target of "Jihad Jane," the Pennsylvania woman, Colleen LaRose, who hatched a plot to kill him.  She pleaded not guilty in response to a federal indictment.

No Matter How Offensive Speech Is Perceived to Be, Violence and Threats Are Off Limits

Let us first say what must be said:  This is scary.  We have created in the United States, as well as other western cultures, a widely shared principle of peaceable disagreement.  Viewed through one lens, the Supreme Court's First Amendment jurisprudence consists of case after case in which the line to be drawn is between the freedom of speech and violence. 

There is robust protection for troubling, unpopular speech, like the burning crosses in Virginia v. Black, or the flag-burning in Texas v. Johnson, or the hate speech in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul.  But there is also a healthy respect for the need to avoid violence and illegal activity, as in Brandenburg v. Ohio (which held that advocacy of violence is protected, but not if there is an imminent threat of lawless action) and Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (which held that fighting words are not constitutionally-protected speech).  Thus, we know full well where to draw the line in such circumstances – arrest and convict the violent provocateur, and protect the speaker. 

The Court's doctrine has meant that Americans are expected to have thick skins when it comes to criticism of their beliefs and faith.  Lively, and even loud and lively, debate is encouraged.  If one's feelings are hurt, or one's most precious beliefs brought into question, then one has access to the public square to push back, but not to fight or physically attack.  Frankly, that is why I can do the work I do for clergy child sex abuse victims, which requires saying in public what many believers may not want to hear.

"Jihad Jane" Deserves a Lengthy Sentence, and Artists Who Draw Mohammed Need Avid Police Protection

This free speech line needs to remain exactly where it is in the United States, and a hefty sentence for Jihad Jane will reinforce the violence/speech distinction.  There is a larger point here, though.  Americans need to understand the particular Islamic worldview that is fueling the likes of the Jihad Janes:  It recognizes no middle ground.  From this perspective, the kind of liberty that permits criticism of Mohammed or Islamicism or of the most revered imams, is to be suppressed, censored, and punished severely. 

We cannot back down in our opposition to this kind of censorship-- at our universities in particular, or anywhere else.  Already, we've seen capitulation:  Yale University Press's past decision not to print provocative cartoons involving Islam due to security fears was a huge error in judgment, one that should lead all serious authors to think twice about publishing with that particular press. 

There also needs to be a shift in professors' syllabi.  We need to tell the Vilks story in every First Amendment and constitutional law classroom.  It is no longer enough to teach the First Amendment with just American cases.  Our most treasured principles are at risk worldwide, and we need to educate our students on the attacks on our most treasured constitutional values that are coming from around the globe.  If we do not do so, then we will have been partially responsible for creating more Jihad Janes, because we will not have sufficiently educated the American people on what is really at stake:  It is our entire culture.

Marci Hamilton, a FindLaw columnist, is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and author of Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge 2008). A review of Justice Denied appeared on this site on June 25, 2008. Her previous book is God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005), now available in paperback. Her email is

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