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Published:April 9th, 2006 06:51 EST
Your rights. Use them or lose them

Your rights. Use them or lose them

By Bruce H.G. Calder (Editor)

Pretend you’re the editor of a small Florida newspaper. You do your best to fill up the pages with news, movie reviews, and maybe a story about a local dog show. You’re doing your best to provide the information that will captivate your readers’ attention, but you don’t want to offend anybody needlessly. 

Recently, there was a demonstration by a group of naturists protesting the lack of “clothing-optional” beaches in the area, making their point by waving signs in the nude -- And your photographer has pictures! Do you publish the photos, or do you just describe them as part of the story? It’s real news, and their nudity is an integral part of the story. 

A meeting is called and it is decided that you’ll print two of the photos. The first picture will show a few women down to just below their shoulders, low enough so that you can tell they’re naked, but no “naughty parts,” while the other one catches the group from a distance, with backsides in view. While some wanted to run the more revealing photos, you said “why risk offending some readers when the point can be made in a less shocking way.” Besides, you might run afoul of Florida’s indecency laws if you went “too far.” 

Some people may still be offended by your decision to run even those fairly tame photographs, but you are confident that you have managed to balance the feelings of your audience, the laws of YOUR OWN COUNTRY, and the need so show people what all of the fuss was about. 

The hoopla surrounding those “offensive” Danish cartoons is similar. Some Muslim clerics and many of their followers have decided that these cartoons, which are relatively benign by Western standards, are so offensive that it justifies the burning down of buildings and the killing of innocent civilians. Wow! That’s real news, but you won’t find those cartoons in this newspaper, and I bet if you don’t go out of your way to find them (internet), you’ll never see them. Why not? It’s real news, the cartoons are an integral part of the story and newspapers are well within their rights to publish them. 

The reason of course is fear. The legitimate fear that whoever publishes these cartoons, even just one “to show people what all of the fuss was about” is quite literally risking his life, because there are those in the world who don’t give a damn about free speech, and are willing to kill to make sure those who disagree with them take a pass on it.  

If you do not defend your rights in the face of danger, you risk losing them. What would have happened to the civil rights movement had there not been people like Martin Luther King, who was willing to risk his life standing up for the rights of black people. Rosa Parks could have gone to the back of the bus, what was the big deal? It’s just a bus ride. Why did she have to offend white people? 

One of the downsides of living in a free country is that you will be offended from time to time. If people in the rest of the world don’t want to be offended, then they should unplug their internet and take down their satellite antenna. They do not have the right to dictate to the entire world what is and is not appropriate, and we in the West should not give them this right without a fight. 

The decision to publish or not publish those cartoons must be made by the newspaper editors themselves, who should not allow themselves to be governed by anybody on the planet willing to gun them down, let alone radical religious fundamentalists who may next insist, with gun in hand that publishing photos of figure skaters with their long bare legs is also offensive.