The Boston Globe on Speech Offensive to Different Religious Groups:

Here's today's Boston Globe editorial on the Mohammed cartoons controversy:

Freedom expression is not the only value at issue in the conflict provoked by a Danish newspaper's publication of cartoons satirizing Islam's founding prophet, Mohammed. The billowing controversy is being swept along by intolerance, ignorance, and parochialism. The refusal of each camp to recognize and respect the otherness of the other brings closer a calamitous clash of cultures pitting Islam against the West.

No devotee of democratic pluralism should accept any infringement on freedom of the press. But the original decision of the Danish paper, Jyllands-Posten, to solicit and publish a dozen cartoons of the Muslim prophet was less a blow against censorship than what The Economist called a schoolboy prank. . . .

Other European papers reprinted the cartoons in a reflex of solidarity. Journalists in free societies have a healthy impulse to assert their hard-won right to insult powerful forces in society. Freedom of the press need not be weakened, however, when it is infused with restraint. This should not be restraint rooted in fear of angering a government, a political movement, or an advertiser. As with the current consensus against publishing racist or violence-inciting material, newspapers ought to refrain from publishing offensive caricatures of Mohammed in the name of the ultimate Enlightenment value: tolerance.

Just as the demand from Muslim countries for European governments to punish papers that printed the cartoons shows a misunderstanding of free societies, publishing the cartoons reflects an obtuse refusal to accept the profound meaning for a billion Muslims of Islam's prohibition against any pictorial representation of the prophet. Depicting Mohammed wearing a turban in the form of a bomb with a sputtering fuse is no less hurtful to most Muslims than Nazi caricatures of Jews or Ku Klux Klan caricatures of blacks are to those victims of intolerance. . . .

There's actually much that I agree with here; that one is and should be legally free to say something doesn't mean that it's right to say it. And while religious ideas, like all ideas, should be open to vigorous debate, needless emotional provocation generally doesn't much advance the debate.

This editorial, though, led me to try to search for what the Boston Globe had said about past controversies involving high-profile speech that was offensive to other religious groups. I searched in particular for editorials referring to the controversies surrounding Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" and the Brooklyn Museum's display of the Virgin Mary covered in feces that was made up in part of feces and of cutouts of bare buttocks from magazines. I may have missed some — if I have, please let me know — but here are the ones I found. Nov. 3, 1999:

This week, US District Judge Nina Gershon sent New York's Mayor Rudolph Giuliani a message he should heed: Stop trampling on the Brooklyn Museum's First Amendment rights.

Giuliani is furious about an exhibit, "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection." He called the art "sick," withheld operating funds, and started eviction proceedings against the museum. One object of his anger is a painting of a black Virgin Mary spotted with elephant dung. The mayor said: "You don't have a right to a government subsidy to desecrate someone else's religion." It's a passionate argument, but it ignores the facts and the law. None of the $2 million for the "Sensation" exhibit came from New York City. Serious allegations have been raised about the museum's fund-raising for the exhibit, but that is a separate issue. The city's contract with the museum calls for the city to pay for maintenance without, as the court says, "stating any conditions regarding the content of the museum's artworks."

Most damning is the court's finding that the city is violating the museum's First Amendment rights. Gershon quoted many cases, including the Supreme Court's 1989 ruling in Texas v. Johnson protecting flag-burning. "If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable."

But what about the 1998 Supreme Court ruling letting the National Endowment for the Arts use "general standards of decency" in its considerations? Gershon noted that this ruling was on awarding grants, not withdrawing operating funds. And the Supreme Court upheld these grant considerations as long as they did not permit "viewpoint discrimination."

Gershon issued a preliminary injunction ordering the city to stop withholding funds, end eviction proceedings, and refrain from retaliation or tampering with the museum's board. Too bad a judge has to remind Giuliani of his duty to do no harm to one of his city's great cultural institutions.

July 17, 1990:

The National Endowment for the Arts is a federal agency created 25 years ago to function as a friend and patron of the arts. It was never intended that the NEA should serve as a moral arbiter of the projects it considers funding.

But that role has been thrust upon the NEA by Congress, following the outcry of Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and a band of conservative congressmen and critics over the exhibitions of work by photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano.

Last week, the NEA issued new guidelines that attempt to define obscenity, in response to a directive from the General Accounting Office. Helms had asked the GAO to investigate whether the arts agency was implementing restrictive language added last fall to its appropriation.

Grant recipients now are required to furnish "a written justification of the project" and an explanation of how it complies with the obscenity language in the NEA's appropriation legislation. Already, some prospective recipients have refused to sign such a pledge.

Critics of the pledge-signing requirement argue that imposing such guidelines has an intimidating effect and is tantamount to censorship.

Liam Rector, executive director of Associated Writing Program in Norfolk, is right when he notes that "the place where obscenity needs to be determined is in the courts — not in Congress and not by the NEA."

The New School for Social Research in New York and Bella Lewitsky, a California choreographer, have filed separate suits in federal courts, challenging the constitutionality of the congressional restriction on the agency's grants.

Congress should grant the National Endowment for the Arts the five-year extension it is seeking and allow it to go about its business without restrictions that hamper the agency and discourage artistic expression.

May 20, 1990:

In its 25-year history, the National Endowment for the Arts has become an invaluable friend and patron of the arts, funding an impressive array of institutions and activities. Now the hysteria generated by a small group of myopic arch-conservatives, led by Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, threatens the NEA's freedom.

Strong pressures are building on Capitol Hill to place limits on the way the NEA awards grants because of the misperception that it supports obscene or sacrilegious art. Supporters of the NEA are divided on whether to seek a one-year or five-year NEA reauthorization.

It would be unreasonable to expect unanimity of support for the many projects the NEA has funded over the years, given the subjectivity of creative expression. The NEA has been criticized often, and some have charged it with elitism.

However, until last year it had never been charged with underwriting smut, as it was when it financed a restrospective of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and made an award to photographer Andres Serrano. The art of these two men has been used unfairly by Helms and an organization called the American Family Association as a device to discredit the NEA, overlooking the important work the NEA has accomplished in fostering the arts.

Where does the public stand on federal aid for the arts? A survey conducted for People For The American Way indicates that Americans strongly support the NEA's role as a promoter and distributor of arts funding and do not wish to see the methods for granting arts awards changed.

Congress should approve another five-year reauthorization for the National Endowment for the Arts and allow it to continue making its cultural contribution to the nation — without any legislative restraints.

On their own, also eminently plausible arguments; I agree with parts of them and disagree with other parts, but they are certainly quite defensible.

Yet where in those editorials are the admonitions about the need for "respect" of religious groups? The condemnations of the juxtaposition of bodily excretions with religious figures as "schoolboy prank[s]"? The denunciations of the art as undermining the "ultimate Enlightenment value" of "tolerance"? The condemnations of the artists, and of those NEA and museum decisionmakers who used their discretion to judge the work artistically excellent, as "obtuse"? And, of course, the suggestion that the works are "no less hurtful to most [Christians] than Nazi caricatures of Jews or Ku Klux Klan caricatures of blacks are to those victims of intolerance"?

Why the difference?

UPDET: Reader Matt Lister pointed out that the Virgin Mary painting was not "covered in feces," as I wrongly reported above, but contained elephant dung as part of the display, and also contained what seemed to be cutouts of naked buttocks from magazines. I've revised the post accordingly; I don't think the details affect the overall analysis, but I'm pleased to be able to correct them.