Islamic Cultural Center and the Heckler’s Veto

You’ve all heard the quote that “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  All too often libertarians emphasize the second part while ignoring the first, as is evident in the current controversy over building an Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero in New York.  Many people view the Center as a symbolic F-U in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack.  These people are angry and are applying whatever pressure they can to stop it.  Libertarians need not go to the opposite extreme of actively promoting the Center’s construction just to prove that we believe in property rights and religious freedom.


This tension between rights and sensibilities is nothing new.  A famous instance occurred in 1977 in Skokie, Illinois when the heavily-Jewish town passed laws to try to prevent neo-Nazis from parading through it.  The citizens, many of them holocaust survivors, were outraged over the demonstrations, but the courts struck down the ordinances as an unconstitutional abridgment of 1st Amendment rights.  This incident showed that it was possible to vigorously oppose the neo-Nazi march, while at the same time proving that the fundamental values of a free society were strong enough to withstand such a challenge.


Another instance hit closer to home for me, literally, in my home town of Simi Valley, California.  In 1991 Rodney King was videotaped being beaten by Los Angeles police.  The subsequent trial of four police officers was moved to Simi Valley, where their 1992 acquittal sparked massive riots in Los Angeles which resulted in thousands of fires, a billion dollars in property damage, thousands of injuries, and 53 deaths.


After the riots, white supremacist Richard Barrett and his self-styled Nationalist Movement tried to cash in by announcing a march to the Simi Valley court house.  Enraged Simi Valley residents demanded that the City Council block the march on the grounds that it might incite a violent response.  My wife, Sandi Webb, was on the City Council at the time, and she published an article in the local paper identifying this demand as a “heckler’s veto” and a violation of free speech and assembly.  She suggested instead that residents organize a counter-protest.  The City Attorney (also a libertarian) warned the City Council that blocking Barrett would lead to a lawsuit and heavy monetary damages against the city.


After some dithering, the rest of the City Council followed Sandi’s lead and the City Attorney’s advice.  Barrett and his pathetic handful of supporters twice paraded around the court house.  Each time they were vastly outnumbered by hundreds of Simi Valley citizens expressing their loud opposition.  Barrett normally made his living by shaking down those cities which prevented his demonstrations: He would sue them and (acting as his own lawyer) be awarded legal fees.  But in the case of Simi Valley he left empty-handed and humiliated.


How does the Islamic Cultural Center compare?  No one doubts the fact that the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center did so in the name of Islam.  No one denies that repressive governments in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, and elsewhere openly commit atrocities in the name of Islam.  These governments, along with radical Islamic groups, issue death fatwas against those who defy them, murder homosexuals, treat women as chattels, conduct “honor killings” against apostates and rape victims, etc.


It is clearly unfair to tar all Muslims with the evil actions of these vicious fanatics and religious dictatorships.  By the same token, we should not whitewash these evil actions out of a misplaced fear of offending the good Muslims who don’t engage in them.  It’s not the place of the Libertarian Party to take a position on whether an Islamic Cultural Center would ultimately be harmful or bene
ficial; that’s a judgment for each individual to make.  What the Libertarian Party can say is that the decision on whether to build the Center near Ground Zero should not be subject to government edict.