published Sunday, June 9th, 2013

Gerber: Free speech ignites anger, angst in Manchester

On the surface, defending free speech seems noble and necessary. But when you get down to it, it's a task that can be distasteful, no matter how strongly you believe in it.

The problem is, some of the statements made in the name of free speech are patently offensive to many people. Or a statement is abhorrent and ignorant to some and enlightened and informed to others.

Free speech, something journalists hold dear, is a messy business. U.S. Attorney Bill Killian learned that last week when he headed to Manchester, Tenn., to talk, in part, about the First Amendment.

"Let me be clear, in this country, hateful speech is allowed," Killian told a crowd of "up to 1,000." It's protected by the First Amendment, he said.

But Killian, who is the U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of Tennessee, said threats of violence are not protected speech and they will be prosecuted. He attempted to discuss hate crimes, civil rights and the federal laws that prescribe violations and penalties.

He was called a traitor and a serpent by some members of the audience. Some in the crowd felt he was using the idea of hate crimes to quash their right to say what they think, to step directly on their First Amendment rights to not like something and be able to say they don't like it.

In this case, it was Muslims.

Killian said the event was organized to improve relations between local residents and their Muslim neighbors, which have not always been smooth sailing in Middle Tennessee, home to an Islamic mosque in Murfreesboro that provoked strong condemnation -- even vandalism and a bomb threat -- when it was being built.

Killian's meeting followed Coffee County Commissioner Barry West's posting on Facebook of an illustration of a man pointing a double-barreled shotgun with the caption: "How to wink at a Muslim." West later apologized and made peace with local Muslims.

Despite Killian's message and assurances, many have questions about where free speech ends and a genuine threat starts.

First Amendment Center President and Executive Director Gene Policinski told Times Free Press reporter Ben Benton that a threat must be directed at a specific person and officials must believe its likely to happen before they can restrict speech.

But even when the threats are specific, it doesn't mean authorities are alerted. Heck, readers call and email all the time, shouting (yes, you can shout in an email) all kinds of threats against Clay Bennett, the Times Free Press editorial cartoonist, and we don't call police.

It's the First Amendment's protection of free speech and a free press that allows Bennett and other journalists to do their jobs. Many people love his cartoons; many find them offensive. He's been called an "imbecilic hate-monger," a "beast" and a "very sick maniacal leftist terrorist" -- and that's just a few choice comments found in a quick search of my email inbox. Really.

He's also been called an "exceptional talent," "fabulous!" and "a treasure that makes Chattanooga look more enlightened than we really are."

The thing about free speech is that it cuts both ways. We must allow the statements that offend us and make our blood boil along with the statements with which we agree. And what may seem insulting to me might be a spot-on insight to you.

The Manchester meeting is a good example. Comments on the Times Free Press Facebook page about the event show a huge divide:

"Stupid hicks."

"I think it's also fun to note that literally every face I see in the picture for this article is middle-aged and white... Glad this ignorance is slowly dying off."

"What mutant would try to combine Christianity with the Klan or Neo Nazi's paganism?"

"Glad your kind hasn't been in control very often, or we'd all be living in the 15th century."


"Dang! So many in one place at the same time! I call that a missed opportunity. I will never respect nor forgive anyone who practices the religion in who's name America was attacked!"

"After this scene, I say the South is too ... dumb to rise again."

"Islam is evil. Killian is just another politically correct communist idiot who hates America."

One Facebook poster stated that Jesus loved the terrorists who flew planes into the World Trade Centers. She later removed her post.

Obviously, the posters don't agree. Certainly, many made controversial comments. But, like the whole smackdown in Manchester, they're all entitled to their views. The First Amendment was exercised without restriction.

And in the end, that's what we should be concerned about, no matter what side of the debate we land on.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at

Comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, nor does it review every comment. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. For more information you can view our Terms & Conditions and/or Ethics policy.
AndrewLohr said...

How about politely asking Muslims who want to build mosques here to sign a petition to the government of Saudi Arabia asking for freedom of speech there, freedom to leave Islam, and freedom to build church buildings?

Would you rather be a Muslim convert in the Bible Belt or a Christian convert in Arabia?

June 9, 2013 at 12:44 a.m.
AndrewLohr said...

God's Kingdom is like a tree that shelters birds; Christians may well tolerate Muslims. But it seems as if this Manchester event may not have come off as defending or defining freedom of speech; it came off as protecting Muslims from most any criticism. I know that's not what Mr Killian said; but most of the critics may think they have justified criticisms, and were being lectured rather than listened to. Mr Killian, and the Muslims, may feel the same way on the other side. A U.S. attorney, representing government force--a government which, to put it harshly, has been spying on its own people and playing favorites with taxes--cannot assume all is well or that he'll be trusted. Much of what he said I can agree with, through he might ask Muslims to wish Muslim countries to offer the same freedoms Muslims enjoy here, but perhaps he could have said it more carefully, and emphasized that Muslims may have to put up, in a free country, with speech they find offensive.

June 9, 2013 at 1 a.m.
daytonsdarwin said...

AndrewLohr said... "Would you rather be a Muslim convert in the Bible Belt or a Christian convert in Arabia?"

Neither. It's time to leave all religious fundamentalism in the trash heap. Superstitious witch-doctors shaking rattles and claiming divine revelations has never worked.

Muslim or Christian doesn't matter — both groups of fundamentalists are dangerous.

While each group certainly has the right to their beliefs and the freedom to voice their beliefs, so do those who believe in alien abductions, Bigfoot, ghosts and goblins, creationists, and flat-earthers.

In this theater of the absurd there's little difference between those true believers.

June 9, 2013 at 10:03 a.m.
klifnotes said...

Does the below statement from today's article, Muslim group says Coffee County meeting was 'hijacked', make any sense?

*"Pam Liner, an occasional blogger who traveled from Morven, Ga., said her feelings and fears surrounding Islam stem from her experience being married to an Muslim Iranian man, who she says took away her daughter when the girl was 9."

Sounds more like a domestic issue than a religious or ethnic one. American parents take their children and run all the time, especially in cases where there are domestic conflicts between spouses. Some have even murdered their own children out of revenge. Is western Christianity to blame for people like Andrea Yates who murdered her five children by drowning them and Josh Powell, who murdered his two sons then killed himself, believed to be an act of revenge? In the case of Andrea Yates, she admits to western Christian beliefs having played a role in her decision to take the lives of all five of her children.

June 9, 2013 at 3:31 p.m.
inquiringmind said...

I'd like to see every Baptist and Pentecostal church that wishes to build a new sanctuary or start a new congregation first sign a pledge to uphold and protect ALL the laws of the United States before getting a permit, including the pledge to honor all persons' right to worship in their own tradition.

June 10, 2013 at 9:09 a.m.
daytonsdarwin said...

I'd like to see all churches pay the same taxes as other businesses. No more exemptions for "religion.

June 10, 2013 at 10:29 a.m.
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