While I did not attend the Draw Mohammed event at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, TX where Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi's attempted religious murder came to an inglorious and fatal end, I do walk my dog in the creek-bottom park behind the conference center at least once a week, so I feel, to some degree, that it was my backyard this latest Hebdo-esque violence flared up in, and I don’t like it. I like my local convention centers to be quiet, unassuming revenue generators, and I am sure that most people in this area do too. By and large, such places will likely maintain that role by default, but on occasion, keeping the peace may require a certain amount of diligence on the part of those approving or rejecting applications to use the facility. We could easily screen out potential firebrands. But do we need to look beyond personal safety and comfort when screening such applications?
It has become clear that the Draw Mohammed event involved a heavy police presence, and that this need was recognized and addressed with care by both local and federal authorities. The expense was considerable, although it was born by the organizers of the event, not by local taxpayers. The security provided evidently succeeded, in that what could have become a much bloodier martyrdom resulted in only one casualty, and no fatalities beyond those of the shooters themselves.
However, the fact that such security was deemed necessary and carefully planned ahead of time also suggests that there was ample opportunity to decline to host an event that might result in significant bloodshed. Garland ISD, on whose property the center is located, could reasonably decide to modify its guidelines for the use of the center in such a way as to ensure just that. But would it be a good idea?
At this point the question becomes thornier. It is not difficult to imagine that a few more attacks of this kind could lead to sweeping changes in convention center rules, changes that would lead to a pruning of material so offensive as to incite violence from the community center circuit. This would amount to a social, rather than legal, diminution of our free speech protections, a development more in line with the approach taken in Europe, where many of America’s broadest protections of freedom of expression do not exist. Such social limits to freedom of action are not to be discounted simply because they are not codified in law, as Mill famously notes.
Whether this is a direction we want our society to move in is largely up to us, but this most recent episode is a reminder of truth of the now-hackneyed adage: “Freedom isn’t free.” Liberty comes with its own set of costs, many which we have long, as a society, been more than willing to bear. It will be interesting to see how Garland ISD and all those involved in the approval process for convention center users will respond to this incident. Will they take the traditional American view, that a certain degree of danger, possibly a certain number of fatalities, are necessary evils in the preservation of a greater good? Or will they retreat to safer ground, in which the freedom to put one’s finger in the eye of a perceived enemy is no longer tolerated if it puts the community at risk?
Since I do not technically live in Garland and pay no property taxes there, I feel only peripherally entitled to comment. The decision is for the community to debate, but its outcome, and the outcome of others like it, will offer those interested in the state of de facto freedom of speech in this country at least one data point in a series whose trends will indicate the extent to which our traditional willingness to defend offensive speech, with our lives if need be, still exists.
I should probably mention that this incident provides an interesting counterpoint to my most recent post, which you can find here.