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Our Views: Free speech still means free
Words are never worth a violent reaction, even when some deem them hate speech
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To send a letter to the editor, learn the letters policy fill out a form online or send to The Times editorial board includes Publisher Charlotte Atkins, General Manager Norman Baggs and Editor Keith Albertson

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

That nursery rhyme chant reminded kids of a certain generation that words, while they may be hurtful at times, aren’t as harmful as violent acts, and we are able to choose how we react to them.

If only today’s adults throughout the world believed that as well.

Today’s debate over free expression has too often crossed the line from a mere exchange of ideas and words, however harsh and angry they may be at times, into real violence.

Such was the case in January when Islamic extremists attacked the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper in France, killing 12 people. And again last weekend, when two U.S.-based Islamic State sympathizers opened fire at an event in Texas, wounding a security guard before another police officer shot and killed them both.

The event, arranged in support of Charlie Hebdo, included a contest in which participants would draw their own cartoons of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, along with numerous speeches on the topic. It was arranged by Pamela Geller, an activist who has been outspoken in her criticism of Muslim extremism, some say to an unhealthy level.

In the week since, many chided Geller and her supporters for inciting the violence with their event. A recent New York Times editorial called Geller’s event “hate speech.” Though the Gray Lady’s editorial board didn’t justify the resulting attack, it stated that such events “can serve only to exacerbate tensions and to give extremists more fuel.”

Here again, we must draw the line between speech that one can freely make or what someone should do with the privilege. The first is protected by our Constitution and allows discourse that may be considered unpleasant or offensive, be it pornography, political rhetoric or what some may deem “hate speech,” a subjective term for which there can be no agreed-upon definition. Yet either it’s all free or none of it is.

And again, we remind what the First Amendment does not promise. It merely confirms that free expression won’t encounter interference from the government. It doesn’t protect anyone from being offended. How we respond is a choice, one that marks the difference between the civilized world and barbarism.

Geller had every right to hold her event, and the New York Times, Garry Trudeau and others are free to slam her and anything that was said there. Protecting all speech includes what some believe shouldn’t be said, in this case cartoons that showed the prophet of Islam in an unflattering light.

Yet the Texas rally would have rated little of the nation’s attention on its own merits had two young men not decided to take it several steps further and drive hundreds of miles with violence in mind.

After all, it’s only speech, words, drawings, ideas. None of these, though potentially hurtful to feelings, is harmful on its own. Those who don’t like cartoons or commentary that may disparage one’s faith are free to look away, change the channel, turn off the radio or put down the newspaper. They’re just words and words are cheap — which often is another way to say “free.”

But one can’t ignore a bullet. Violence doesn’t qualify as free expression. And it’s why, even amid a discussion between “can” and “should,” any attempt to accuse Geller and her followers of stirring up trouble points fingers in the wrong direction.

The battle that rages across most of the Middle East pits moderates who choose to live in the real, modern world against extremists who resist anything but strict adherence to their religious dogma. This small, isolated band of savages who call themselves Islamic State, Taliban or al-Qaida can’t separate the power of words from the force of the sword. So they choose sticks and stones to express themselves.

The nation’s Founding Fathers identified free expression in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights as a basic building block of liberty. They recognized even then — centuries before the Internet, bloggers, talk radio, cable news, Twitter and Facebook — that an open exchange of ideas, even when pointed and spirited, is a healthy part of a civilized society.

Now, however, many believe this flow of ideas should come with restraints, that punches should be pulled to avoid inciting violent brutes. This merely adds credence to their depravity by acknowledging it as a legitimate point of view.

If the dog next door is barking at you, you still shouldn’t be afraid to go out into your yard; let the dog’s owner control his beast. Reacting out of fear to such intimidation only begs for more of it. Bullies will keep bullying until someone stands up to them and says, “enough.”

The New York Times and others are free to criticize Geller and her supporters for what they “should” say, because the free press “can,” as we do here. But what she and others is free to express is protected by the First Amendment, and cannot and should not be silenced by critics, intimidation or bullets.

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