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Fear, cowardice and rationalization spread outward. Twenty-five years later, we can look back on a long series of similar events, including: the 2002 anti-Christian riots in Nigeria, in which more than 200 people were killed because a local tabloid had facetiously suggested that Miss World contestants would make suitable brides for Muhammad; the 2004 murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh for his movie “Submission,” in which passages from the Quran were printed on women’s bodies; the riots in Denmark and throughout the Middle East in 2005 in response to the publication of cartoons of Muhammad by a Danish magazine; the murder threats against Dutch politician Geert Wilders for his 2008 film “Fitna,” which interleaved passages from the Quran with clips of jihadist violence.

Muslim worshippers in Baghdad, Iraq, denounce Denmark after a Danish magazine ran cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad on Feb. Associated Press These events were threats to free speech, however, not only in themselves but also because they intimidated people and private organizations and gave governments an excuse to restrict free media.

The Saturday Essay No Offense: The New Threats to Free Speech The U. and Britain have long considered themselves the standard-bearers for freedom of expression. We said most of the right things about defending freedom of thought and the imagination.

Can this proud tradition survive the idea that ‘hurtful’ speech deserves no protection? 14, 1989, I happened to be on a panel on press freedom for the Columbia Journalism Review when someone in the audience told us of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s religious edict for blasphemy against the British novelist Salman Rushdie. But the death sentence from Iran’s supreme leader seemed unreal—the sending of a thunderbolt from medieval Qom against modern Bloomsbury—and we didn’t treat it with the seriousness that it deserved.

In both countries, the restraints on speech have since been softened, but the concessions have been modest, and Canada’s Supreme Court has clearly indicated a wish to retain the new speech regime in full.

Content wasn’t supposed to be considered (though it was sometimes smuggled in under other headings).

Dutch legal authorities tried repeatedly, if unsuccessfully, to prosecute Mr. If you denounce a belief as absurd, you are implicitly criticizing the believers as credulous fools.

Christians have to endure explicit denunciations of their faith all the time from such writers as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. If you can’t stand the heat, don’t listen to hellfire sermons from atheists.

Today, hurtful speech is more likely to be political speech than obscene speech. I recall, alas, making a very poor joke about literary deconstructionism. The literary, media and political worlds rallied in defense of Mr. He became a hero of free speech and a symbol—even if a slightly ambivalent postcolonial one—of Western liberal traditions.

My colleagues, though more sensible, were baffled and hesitant. But he also went, very sensibly, behind a curtain of security that was to last many years. Rushdie’s life but the lives of his publishers, editors and translators might be threatened—his base of support in the literary world thinned out.

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Freedom of political speech, however, was regarded as sacrosanct by all.