Balancing freedom and responsibility

Using our rights responsibly may mean not showing offensive cartoons.

As a certified defender of the First Amendment, I've been asked by many people why the American media invoked the people's right to know in breaching national security but is acting with much more circumspection when it comes to combustible cartoons.

The Danish cartoons, one of them depicting the prophet Muhammad with a bomb as his turban, have triggered enraged demonstrations wherever there are sizable Muslim populations, climaxed by the burning of the Danish missions in Beirut and Damascus.

In this country, coverage has centered on the violent protests, but the offending cartoons are hard, almost impossible to find. There was no cartoon in the many newspapers I saw. Since then, the Philadelphia Inquirer has printed one of the cartoons. ABC was the only television network I saw that carried a brief shot of one cartoon. NBC said without explanation that it was not showing any of the cartoons. National Public Radio stated that it had decided not to post the cartoons on its website because they were highly offensive to millions of Muslims.

The State Department straddled the issue saying that the cartoons were "unacceptable," but defending the right of Danish and French newspapers to publish them. The Committee to Protect Journalists in New York said, "you have to hold your nose, but they have a right to publish."

So where do I stand? The easy answer is that freedom of speech implies freedom not to speak. No, that's not quite good enough. But rights are best defended when employed responsibly.

In 1976, I was summoned before the House Ethics Committee which was investigating a leak of some secret information that I had caused to be published. And I was asked by an irate Congressman whether I would divulge anything I got, no matter how much harm it might do. I said no, I would not. That I had learned over the years that rights are not absolute and may, especially in times of tension, have to give ground to other interests.

In 1919, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled that the First Amendment does not protect a man falsely shouting "fire" in a theater and causing a panic.

Maybe a cartoon that may inflame millions should be described but not shown, as a matter of judgment and taste.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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