Franklin Graham, Charlie Hebdo and the “heckler’s veto”

The  most recent terrorist threats we’ve seen have come not from Muslims overseas or Muslims in this country, but from Christians in this country.

On January 14, Duke University announced its plan to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer from the tower of its chapel every Friday.  Franklin Graham posted on Facebook, requesting that donors withhold donations to the university it reversed that decision.  A firestorm of controversy followed.

The next day, Duke announced that it had reversed its decision, not based on the verbal controversy, but rather based on what it called “serious, credible threats” to the university.  In other words, terrorist threats.

This is what’s known in discussions of free speech as the “heckler’s veto,” where free speech gets shut down based on the threats of a bully who doesn’t like the free speech.  The speech in question here would have been the call to prayer, and the bully is not really Franklin Graham, but rather the nameless Christian terrorists who threatened the university with violence.

The situation is similar enough to the recent terrorist attacks on the French journal Charlie Hebdo.  I see a difference.  If I’m not mistaken, Pope Francis has expressed, and I agree, that common decency would urge one to refrain from consistently, intentionally saying things one knows will seriously offend somebody.  As for Charlie Hebdo, it seems to me common sense would also urge a person to not consistently put oneself in harm’s way.  Charlie Hebdo is well aware that these crazies are out there, and the editor-in-chief has been under police guard already for two years.

I first learned about this notion of a “heckler’s veto” from an article in the Washington Post in February 2014,[1] about students at a high school in California who wore American flag t-shirts to school on Cinco de Mayo, and the principal told them to either remove the shirts or go home.  There were serious threats of possible violence there by Hispanic immigrant students and others.

The situations can sometimes get really ugly, and I have a link on my blog post to a story of such a situation.[2]

It can be hard to tell when one needs to shut up to please a bully.

The lesson here for Christians, however, is that Christians can be bad guys, too.

What do you think?


[1]2014-02-27: Not safe to display American flag in American high school
[2]Some of these situations get really ugly:
2014-10-23: Sixth Circuit agrees to rehear “heckler’s veto” decision

Volokh Conspiracy articles about the “heckler’s veto”

Originally posted 2015-01-31.

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