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An Invalid Contribution

The Salient's actions do not merit praise

By Paul R. Katz

Had the Harvard Salient contributed to public debate when it reprinted four of the 12 controversial cartoons originally published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, its efforts would have been truly commendable. As the Salient chose instead to sidetrack meaningful discussion with the cartoons’ repetitive and incendiary republication on its back page, however, such commendation is hardly warranted. While no authority should limit the ability of the Salient (or any publication) to publish provocative material, the paper’s decision to republish the Danish cartoons was in poor taste and had improper motivations and should therefore not be congratulated.

The four cartoons the Salient elected to reprint are unnecessarily incendiary and offend the deepest sensibilities of many Muslims who believe any illustration of Muhammad to be inappropriate, much less one that so directly equates the teaching of Islam’s greatest prophet with terrorism. Saddled not only with this disturbing implication but also with the weight of violent protest, these cartoons do less to encourage substantive debate on the conflict between free speech and sensitivity than it does to inspire knee-jerk reactions and finger pointing on all sides. And considering that the purpose of the Salient’s back page is almost always to incite controversy, the latter outcome was clearly among the intended purposes of the cartoons’ republication.

An editorial offered without the cartoons, in contrast, would have left readers with no alternative but to consider the paper’s own arguments rather than the images themselves, constituting a more substantial contribution to the “marketplace of ideas” so central to open speech and informed debate.

Many wish to congratulate the Salient, furthermore, for the support for free speech apparently inherent in its publication of these cartoons. The view that the publication of these four images, however, is an “affirmation” of free speech dangerously equates the protection of a valuable right with the publication of these particular, offensive cartoons. The Salient’s publication is not a statement of support for free speech—this could have been achieved by a simple statement of affirmation of the Danish paper’s right to publish them—but is instead an expression that the cartoons are themselves a valuable contribution to this discourse. Endorsing the Salient’s decision to publish these cartoons sanctions this view, affirming a false dichotomy: that one either supports free speech by reprinting them or stifles open discourse by choosing not to do so.

This principle is applied often in journalism; one can comment on child pornography (in fact, major papers often do) without publishing the relevant photographs. Indeed, publishing such images would never be interpreted as a substantial contribution to an important discussion, but rather a diversion that misses the substance of the conversation.

It is hypocritical, moreover, to commend the Salient for bringing these images more prominently into the marketplace of ideas and then to decline to call on all newspapers to publish them. If the cartoons themselves are an essential component of an important debate, then bringing them to all readers should be a central part of any news source’s commitment to inform.

Given the lack of original or valuable contribution made in the publication of these cartoons, and their clearly inflammatory purpose, the Salient should not have published the images and should instead have allowed the strength of its argumentation, not the sensationalism of the uproar it created, to provide the substance of its editorial remarks.

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