When does provoking hatred cross the line from free speech to irresponsible speech?

The legal answer may differ from the moral answer.

The legal answer appeared in a recent court ruling.

A United States District Court judge ruled earlier this year that the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority had to run an incendiary advertisement on buses that said, “Killing Jews is worship that draws us close to Allah.” The ad had an image of a man wearing a headscarf.

Given the nature of the ad and the ad sponsor, the ad’s message was clearly an anti-Islamic ad. It distorted one religion. It labeled one religion as violent.

“[T]here is no evidence that seeing one of these advertisements on the back of a bus would be sufficient to trigger a violent reaction. Therefore, these ads – offensive as they may be – are still entitled to First Amendment protection,” the judge said.

Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps such a hateful smear doesn’t trigger violence. But can one dispute that it certainly poisons the public square?

The American Freedom Defense Initiative, headed up by Pamela Geller, sponsored the New York bus advertisement campaign.

Geller has a long record of incendiary speech and a deep hatred of Muslims.

More recently, she was behind the anti-Muhammad cartoon contest in Garland, Texas, which resulted in the deaths of two Muslim men with assault rifles and body armor. They were killed after opening fire at the event.

The Garland mayor said his community would have been better off without Geller’s event.

“As a Muslim community, we need to acknowledge hate groups and not get baited. They are trying to provoke the Muslims into doing something wrong,” said an Islamic sheikh in the Dallas-area about the Geller contest.

Another Texas Muslim leader said Geller was “hiding behind the First Amendment and free speech to insult the Muslims.”

He said the Muslim community, which has some 60 mosques in north Texas, was “instructed” to avoid reaction, to being provoked.

Two Muslims failed to control their anger. What they did – intended to do – was wrong, hateful, revengeful.

Anti-religious cartoons never justify violence.

Thank goodness law enforcement contained what could have been a more violent episode with the loss of innocent lives.

Anti-religious cartoons and spiteful bus ads may legally qualify as expressions of free speech.

That doesn’t mean they qualify as morally responsible speech.

Morally responsible speech is truthful, civil, respectful. Morally responsible speech enriches the public discourse.

It advances dialogue, even though parties may disagree. It may even result in sharp disagreement.

Morally responsible speech shouldn’t be confused with mushy sentimentalism and weak-kneed avoidance.

The intent of responsible speech is to clarify and to build up, not to distort and to tear down.

What Geller does may be legally acceptable. But that doesn’t make it morally right.

Let’s not confuse freedom of speech with moral righteousness.

Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.

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