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August 28, 2008

The Washington Post: Right, and Wrong, on Free Speech

In its August 22 editorial, “Random Error: Fearing the risk of violence, a publisher capitulates,” The Washington Post castigated Random House for cancelling publication of The Jewel of Medina. Objections — not from Iranian ayatollahs, al Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood, but from Denise Spellberg, professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas — spooked the venerable publisher.

The Jewel of Medina is described as a romance novel about Muhammad and his wives by American author Sherry Jones. According to The Post, Prof. Spellberg fulminated that “you can’t play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography.” She apparently has never read The Harlot By The Side of the Road, by Jonathan Kirsch (and published by a division of Random House) or seen Monty Python’s Life of Brian and suffers preemptive clientitis. Prof. Spellberg “warned Random House of a ‘national security issue’ and told the publisher to dump the book.” After consulting “credible and unrelated sources,” Random House did so out of fear that Jewel of Medina might offend some Muslims and could incite violence by “a small, radical segment.”

Pronounced The Post, “the spirit of liberty needs reinforcement at one distinguished American book publisher .... [F]or the first time in its history — Random House capitulated, even though its own experts told it the book might be offensive only to ‘some,’ not most, Muslims. Now an “intolerant fringe, newly empowered and emboldened by this victory, will be around for a long time to come. Lending cultural institutions must stand up to it — lest the most violent acquire a veto over our most precious freedoms.”

Amnesia must have had something to do with The Post’s free speech-free press battle cry. As Joe Schwind pointed out in his August 27 letter to the editor, “Throwing Stones At Random House”:

“ ....[Y]ou would have a little more credibility on the subject if you hadn’t allowed the same potential threats to dictate how you reported the controversy two years ago over cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. The Post had its chance to assert its right to report current events as a major newspaper should by printing the cartoons, but instead you caved in to the mob just as Random House has done.”

Readers still expect The Post to publish those Danish cartoons, better late than never, and in the process of upholding the rights of free speech and a free press, show Random House the way.

Posted by ER at August 28, 2008 12:36 PM

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