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Wednesday, February 8, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

Free speech leavened by a thing called judgment

Seattle Times editorial columnist

A Christian from suburban Seattle sends me the inflammatory drawing of Muhammad from the Danish newspaper. He dares me, "Go ahead! Print it!"

No.

Stefan Sharkansky of Seattle posts it on his Internet site, Sound Politics. "I encourage my fellow anti-theocracy bloggers and newspapers to stand with Europe's newspapers and post some of these cartoons."

No.

A taboo prevents American newspapers from running cartoons attacking Sharkansky's religion, which is Judaism. The same taboo, I think, should apply to images made deliberately to provoke Islam.

That taboo was not respected by the secular liberal press 15 years ago, when Andres Serrano unveiled a "sculpture" of Jesus submerged in urine. Christians had to grit their teeth and put up with it. Now the Muslims are faced with caricatures in a Danish newspaper, and we face the same question.

Do Muslims get special treatment because in the Middle East they riot? Violence does focus the mind. If Christians, Jews and Muslims are due the same respect — and they are — perhaps the "arts community" should not have embraced "Piss Christ."

What of freedom of expression? There are two aspects of it, about which Americans are perpetually confused.

The first is legal. "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." That restricts what the government does.

The second aspect is cultural. It is a side dish to the First Amendment. It is the idea that a diversity of opinion is good. This idea influences employers, private associations and private media, including this page. It's a presumption only, not a right. Always there are beliefs, opinions and images that are out of bounds. There are images of Jesus — or Martin Luther King, or the pope, or any person — that may not be shown.

The question raised by the Danish cartoons is whether reasonable people should choose to show a cartoon deliberately blaspheming Islam. Really, it is about the status of Islam — how important we think it is.

Another part of the First Amendment is freedom of religion. Legally, this is about freedom from the government. Again, there is a cultural side dish: In America we make religious freedom work by not attacking the other fellow's beliefs.

That is what those cartoons do. The believer thinks it's a sin to picture Muhammad, and we do it anyway and say, "Hey! Get a load of this."

It is not the drawing alone. A sketch of a bearded man with a bomb in his turban is fine. You may imply he's a Muslim, and that's OK. Say it's the prophet, and you insult 1.5 billion believers.

None of this means it is OK to stir up a riot and burn down a foreign consulate. It's not, the West has said it is not, and even the spokesman for Hamas asked people not to do it. Nor does it mean the press has to bow to every person who has his feelings hurt, or else discussion would end.

It does mean that citing freedom of speech is not enough. There has to be judgment. Not censorship, which is what government does, but judgment, which is that cultural side dish that goes along with free speech.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

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