Desecration:

A commenter (Porkchop) raises a great point:

Republication of the cartoons boils down to this: Depicting Mohammed in violation of Muslim tenets strikes a blow at the very heart of Islamic beliefs, and and such sacrilegious desecration of their beliefs is so offensive and hurtful that it simply should not be allowed, even under the guise of "free speech."

Personally, I don't buy into that, but here's a question for discussion: Isn't this the same argument advanced in the United States by those who want a constitutional amendment (and implementing federal and state statutes) to ban the burning or other desecration of the flag of the United States? Can one support the right to publish the cartoons and also support a flag-burning amendment? If so, how does one distinguish between the two?

One can naturally come up with some distinctions — among other things, banning all depictions of Mohammed burdens a wider range of speech (e.g., pretty much any film biography of Mohammed) than banning flagburning would — but I think that on balance these distinctions are unpersuasive. If you want to credibly say to Muslims that they have to tolerate offense to their sacred symbols, you have to tolerate offense to your own sacred symbols, too.

Conversely, as I've argued before, allowing flagburning bans seems likely to help stimulate what I call "censorship envy": If my neighbor gets to ban symbols he dislikes, why shouldn’t I get to do the same? This kind of misplaced desire for equality of repression is a powerful psychological force.

One risk, then, is that banning the desecration of one symbol will help lead to bans on desecration of the other — allowing flagburning bans will change swing voters' views about freedom of offensive speech, or will trigger their concerns about equality, and will lead to bans on desecration of religious symbols.

Of course, it's quite possible that this slippage will be resisted — that even if there's not much of a good logical distinction between flagburning bans and bans on insults to religious symbols and figures, American politics will lead to the adoption of the former but rejection of the latter. But that itself, I think, will be harmful: Right now, when American Muslims are deeply offended by pejorative depictions of Mohammed, we can tell them: "Yes, you must endure this speech that you find so offensive, but others must endure offensive speech, too. Many Americans are deeply offended by flagburning, much as you are deeply offended by depictions of Mohammed, but the Constitution says we all have to live with being offended: We must fight the speech we hate through argument, not through suppression."

But what would we say when flagburning is banned but other offensive symbols are allowed? "We in the majority get to suppress symbols we're offended by, but you in the minority don't"? "Our offense at flagburning is reasonable but your offense at depictions of Mohammed with a bomb in his turban is not"? If you were a Muslim citizen of America, would you be persuaded by these arguments? Would you feel better about America because of them?

The First Amendment was drafted and interpreted by people who intimately understood cultural, religious, and political conflict, and who knew how calls for censorship could launch the most bitter of culture wars. The First Amendment is a truce: "I won't suppress your ideas, and you won't suppress mine." And a ban on flagburning would undermine this truce.