Freedom of Speech Requires Courage

It is often interesting to watch old movies and television programs. Although there are certainly classic movies and programing with a timeless quality, it is often illuminating to see the world through the unique cultural vision of the period . Perhaps the most conspicuous and consistent difference is the past glamorization of smoking before the 1960s, whereas by contemporary standards smoking is considered déclassé. Other times we are reminded of more heroic perspectives.

This week the TV Land network aired an episode of Lou Grant with an important message for our times.  If you remember back to the 1970s, the character Lou Grant, played by actor Edward Asner, began with comedy, the Mary Tyler Moore show, set in a Minnesota newsroom. Lou Grant was a spinoff drama, where character Lou Grant was now a news editor of the fictitious Los Angeles Tribune.

In the particular episode, Nazi, reporter Billie Newman (Linda Kelsey) is pursuing a story about an American Nazi  who turns out have been born Jewish. The salient point here is that the reporter was fearful for her life, but pursued the story nonetheless. The show was not shy about moralizing, and the message here was clear: Fidelity to the truth and the unfettered right of free expression often requires courage. In this case, the reporter was not threatened by government censorship, but self-censorship induced by fear of private person or group.

Three decades later, that message of courage seems to have been forgotten. Sherry Jones is  a journalist who has taken a considerable interest in Islamic culture and pursued its study. That study and several years of writing led to a fictionalized historical novel about Mohammad and his favorite wife Aisha. Random House publishing company advanced Jones $100,000 for two books, of which The Jewel of Medina was the first.

Now Random House has lost it publishing nerve. As far as we know, there have been no specific threats against Random House or the author. Rather, the book was sent to Denise Spellberg, a scholar in Islamic studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Spellberg warned that some Muslims might find the book offensive. After the experience of the Danish anti-Mohammad cartoons that caused riots and the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini for the death of Salmon Rushdie who wrote the Satanic Versus, Random  House is apprehensive.

With this recent history, the concern about a violent reaction to a book that is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as insulting to Islam, is not irrational and precautions are prudent. However, if Random House and the author are convinced of the literary quality of The Jewel of Medina, they would demonstrate considerable moral fortitude in proceeding with the publication. If not, they will help establish precedent that one can successfully intimidate the publishing community.

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