Consider the case of a controversial cartoon. Not the notorious Danish cartoons, but a cartoon published in the New York Post last month. A response to revelations that emerged in February about the NYPD's large-scale spying on American Muslim students after 9/11, it portrayed three hook-nosed, turbaned terrorists complaining that the police were spying on them. In doing so, it insinuated a link between the terrorists the NYPD is meant to monitor and the innocent American citizens whose civil liberties were deliberately breached.
I was reminded of this cartoon during Irshad Manji's recent talk at a Free Speech Debate event at Oxford University. Manji opposes all legal prohibitions on free speech, even to the point of permitting the publication of death threats against herself. While certainly idiosyncratic, this position is internally consistent, avoiding the hypocrisy that habitually bedevils attempts to ban certain types of free speech on the grounds of offence but not others. However, once we accept that the state should not play the role of censor, an absolutist defence of free speech as "life itself", as Salman Rushdie once put it, cannot tell us how to judge between individual instances of its exercise.