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Free speech takes another hit

Score another victory for fear.

A few months ago, Random House, the world's largest English-language book publisher, canceled the release of "The Jewel of Medina," a historical novel by longtime journalist and first-time author Sherry Jones. The reason? They were scared.

"The Jewel of Medina," is a story about the Islamic prophet Muhammad and his wife, Aisha, who was his third wife and a child bride. Jones told the Associated Press it is a novel of "women's empowerment, reconciliation and peace." Her critics say it is historically inaccurate and offensive to Muslims. Random House went with the critics and decided to pull the plug.

Random House apparently sought more scholarly advice after one professor vehemently opposed the novel on the grounds of its inaccuracies and offensive content, including sexual content. The company determined the novel would result in "credible" threats of violence against Random House employees.

All of this, of course, is stirred up by memories of past protests from the Muslim world over published material. In the late 1980s, Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding after the Ayatollah Khomeini ordered him killed for his book, "The Satanic Verses." In 2005, the publication in Danish newspapers of editorial cartoons featuring Muhammad resulted first in protest and legal action and then violence.

What it all boils down to is, once again, the perceived threat of violence means that the Western world will bow down to radical Islam. And free speech suffers another blow.

Now, in a way, I can understand Random House's position. It is a business, after all, and not all businesses are willing to literally or figuratively go down in flames in the defense of any particular cause. And I do respect Random House's concern for its employees, but I strongly disagree with its decision in this case because every time someone gives in to these threats, it only strengthens the resolve of those who hate our way of life.

I don't know if "The Jewel of Medina" is accurate, inaccurate, right, wrong or even good for that matter. It certainly doesn't sound like something I'd want to read. But choosing not to publish it because of fear goes against the fundamentals of free speech, which is the core of our liberty.

In 1927, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in his opinion in Whitney v. California: "... no danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present, unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion. If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence."

The problem in the case of the Jones novel is the presumption that there will be no opportunity for full discussion, that the chain of events will simply be 1) publication of the novel and 2) violent acts committed upon the publishing house's employees and/or the author.

The decision to give in to possible threats doesn't allow for a slightly different chain of events, one in which the novel is published, people talk and write about it, either exposing it or upholding it, and then there may or may not be attacks from the offended parties. And the decision to ignore this possibility is based solely on the subject matter.

Doubleday didn't pull "The Da Vinci Code," which contains more historical inaccuracies and attacks on Christianity than you can count. Doubleday published it. And then a whole cottage industry sprang up with people selling books and DVDs exposing the novel's inaccuracies and defending Christianity and the Catholic Church. But no one burned down Doubleday.

Go to any book store and you'll see whole rafts of books about shadow governments and the "New World Order," many of these following the old conspiracy theory that everything is run by a cabal of Communists and Jewish bankers. Yet you don't see Jewish bankers setting off bombs outside Barnes and Noble.

But this book concerns Islam. And when the most radical supporters of that religion don't get their way, they kill people. Or in this case, books.

Then again, maybe not. Jones announced Wednesday that another publisher had agreed to release her novel. Maybe it won't be intimidated.

We believers in free speech can only hope.

E-mail Nate McCullough at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Fridays.