Free speech requires responsibility

Not depicting Muhammad is essential for respectful, <br />inoffensive discourse

Keith Yost misses the point in his column “Muhammad in a bear costume,” a thoroughly confused ramble that disguises prejudice in the guise of apparently reasoned discourse. He states up front that “I am not calling for offending for offense’s sake there is a reasonable argument to be had that responsible institutions should take measures, including self-censorship, to avoid inspiring animosity between Islam and the West.”

However, in contradiction to this, he believes that “our citizens have the right to satirize Muhammad without fear of retribution, just as they have the right to declare themselves gay or to let their religious beliefs be known” and that the “right” to display Islam’s holy prophet in a bear costume should be protected. He feels that failing to print such a cartoon represents an attack on our “core democratic principles.” And criticizes The Tech for refusing to print what he describes as a “respectful depiction” of Islam’s prophet alongside his column. He urges other media organizations to publish portrayals of him “as a declaration of the supremacy of free speech.”

The Managing Board of The Tech, including the alumni Advisory Board of which I am a member, had a substantial discussion over whether to allow Yost’s cartoon to be printed. In the course of this debate The Tech consulted the MIT imam as well as Muslim students.

A decision was reached that the unnecessary offense caused by Yost’s cartoon to the Muslim community outweighed any possible additional contribution to discussion.

It does not matter that Yost finds it proper to portray Islam’s prophet either in a bear costume or in any way that he finds to be “respectful.” Most Muslims do not find any portrayal of their prophet to be respectful.

We must recognize that our world is enriched by the presence of a multitude of cultures, and reach out to accommodate views that may differ from our own in order to live together in peace and harmony.

There is no obligation on any media organization to publish any particular item. No “censorship” was shown in refusing to publish Yost’s cartoon in The Tech. “Censorship” refers to a legal prohibition on a particular form of publication, and no such restriction exists. However, responsibility accompanies freedom of speech, and with it comes a need to strike a proper balance. The Tech has maintained that balance by both allowing Yost’s column to be printed, even though I found its content disagreeable, and recognizing that Muslims on campus are valued as members of the community and are to be welcomed to take part in any discussion without the pressure of offensive attacks on their most cherished prophet or beliefs.

Printing an opinion in a spirit of tolerance and equality encourages free speech. Putting down any element of society in an offensive way spreads fear and closes off that freedom.