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Yesterday, Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights forthrightly condemned the killings at Charlie Hebdo: "Killing in response to insult, no matter how gross, must be unequivocally condemned. That is why what happened in Paris cannot be tolerated."

Then in the third sentence he took it all back: "But neither should we tolerate the kind of intolerance that provoked this violent reaction."

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Much as we Americans pat ourselves on the back about the First Amendment and our national commitment to free speech, we're not always comfortable about it.

After all, most of the members of the Revolutionary generation were still alive in 1798 when the Federalist Congress passed, and President John Adams signed, the Sedition Act, which provided punishment for in part: "To write, print, utter or publish, or cause it to be done, or assist in it, any false, scandalous, and malicious writing against the government of the United States, or either House of Congress, or the President, with intent to defame, or bring either into contempt or disrepute. …"

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When President Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus in Maryland in 1861, Frank Key Howard, Francis Scott Key's grandson, publicly criticized the action and was promptly imprisoned at Fort McHenry without trial.

Every year the American Library Association finds it necessary to observe Banned Books Week, during which it records efforts at censorship, many of them ludicrous, around the nation.

The mayor of Atlanta has fired a Baptist fire chief who expressed ignorant anti-gay views in a self-published book, and the city government’s explanation reeks of rationalization. 

And now Mr. Donohue calls Stephane Charbonnier, the murdered editor of Charlie Hebdo, "narcissistic" and suggests that he brought it all on himself.

It does not display a bold commitment to free expression to approve of the right of people to say and write politely and respectfully, to endorse speech you agree with. A genuine commitment to free speech requires endorsing the right of people to speech you disagree with, even speech you find offensive. 

So it is necessary to keep reminding American upholders of free speech: Speech does not have to be measured and responsible. People have a right to uninformed, vulgar, immature, strident, hyperbolic, intolerant, and blasphemous speech.

Yes, you can be criticized and shunned, you can fall afoul of libel law, you do not have a right to incite to violence, and your right to free speech is not accompanied with a right to a job if you sufficiently irritate your employer. But the people who disagree with you do not have a right to kill you.

The people who killed M. Charbonnier and his colleagues cannot and will not tolerate expression of views contrary to their own. And Mr. Donohue, despite his two opening sentences at "Muslims are right to be angry," has chosen to stand with them.

 

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