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It's time to fight back against death threats by Islamic extremists

A federal law is needed to cover threats against free-speech rights. Across media and geographies, Islamic extremists are increasingly using intimidation to stifle free expression.

September 27, 2010|By Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Daniel Huff

Earlier this year, after Comedy Central altered an episode of "South Park" that had prompted threats because of the way it depicted Islam's prophet Muhammad, Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris proposed an "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day." The idea was, as she put it, to stand up for the 1st Amendment and "water down the pool of targets" for extremists.

The proposal got Norris targeted for assassination by radical Yemeni American cleric Anwar Awlaki, who has been linked to the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight and also to several of the 9/11 hijackers. This month, after warnings from the FBI, Norris went into hiding. The Seattle Weekly said that Norris was "moving, changing her name, and essentially wiping away her identity."

It's time for free-speech advocates to take a page from the abortion rights movement's playbook. In the 1990s, abortion providers faced the same sort of intimidation tactics and did not succumb. Instead, they lobbied for a federal law making it a crime to threaten people exercising reproductive rights and permitting victims to sue for damages. The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, or FACE, passed in 1994 by solid bipartisan margins. A similar act is needed to cover threats against free-speech rights.

A federal law would do two things. First, it would deter violent tactics, by focusing national attention on the problem and invoking the formidable enforcement apparatus of the federal government. Second, its civil damages provision would empower victims of intimidation to act as private attorneys general to defend their rights.

Such an act is overdue. Across media and geographies, Islamic extremists are increasingly using intimidation to stifle free expression.

In 2004, Theo van Gogh was butchered on an Amsterdam street in broad daylight for his film criticizing Islam's treatment of women. By 2006, it was reported that "dozens of people" across Europe were "in hiding or under police protection because of threats from Muslim extremists."

Some targets, including the coauthor of this Op-Ed, fled to the United States, where it seemed safer -- and so it is, for now. However, the stark truth is the United States was never immune and the situation is deteriorating.

In 1989, two American bookstores carrying Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" were firebombed. Spooked major chains took it off display. And there have been many more threats that received less publicity. Few have heard, for example, about Oklahoma atheist Sabri Husibi, who received death threats after writing a 2009 article critical of his former faith. His aged mother in Syria was warned she would never see him again. "Clearly shaken," he requested the paper that published his article clarify that he is critical of all faiths.

These kinds of threats have had a formidable chilling effect. Mindful of the retaliation others faced, Yale University Press, the Met, the director of the disaster epic "2012" and countless others have decided to preemptively censor themselves.

The kind of legislation we propose is essential if we are to win the war of ideas against extremists, who use threats to drive the moderate message out of public discourse.

Existing state laws prohibiting intimidation are inadequate. On the criminal side, the heightened standard of proof deters prosecutors from investing scarce resources. Explicit grounds for a civil action do not always exist, and damages can be difficult to quantify. By contrast, the FACE Act, which provides the model for the proposed legislation, lets victims opt for preset damages.

The "South Park" incident neatly illustrates the benefits. On April 15, following the first of a two-part episode mocking Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad, RevolutionMuslim.com announced that "[w]e have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh." The "warning" included the names, photos and work address of "South Park's" creators, a graphic image of Van Gogh's mutilated body and pictures of other targets of Muslim extremists. Overlaying this was audio of Awlaki preaching about assassinating anyone who defamed the prophet. Panicked, Comedy Central heavily censored the episode.

This rather obvious threat could not be prosecuted. New York Police Department officials explained it did not rise to a crime. Were the FACE Act applicable here, a civil suit would have been available, and precedent suggests it would have been successful.

In 2002, on very similar facts, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a civil award to abortion doctors who sued using the FACE Act. A fringe antiabortion group, ACLA, had in various public venues displayed "Wanted"-style posters bearing the names, photos and addresses of doctors who performed abortions. Their names were also posted on the Internet alongside a list of wounded and murdered doctors whose names were struck through. The 9th Circuit held that ACLA's activities constituted true threats unprotected by the 1st Amendment.

If we leave our artists, activists and thinkers alone to weather the assault, they will succumb and we will all suffer the consequences.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former member of the Dutch parliament, is a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute and the author of "Nomad: From Islam to America." Daniel Huff is director of the Middle East Forum's Legal Project.

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