The Meaning of "Incitement to Violence"

The Colorado Freedom Report:  An independent journal of politics and culture.

The Colorado Freedom

The Meaning of "Incitement to Violence"

by Ari Armstrong, February 11, 2006

In a February 8 article, I noted that, in response to the Danish cartoons about Mohammed, an Iranian paper solicited cartoons about the Holocaust. I wrote,

[N]ot all offenses are created equal -- sometimes an offensive cartoon or statement is warranted by the facts, and sometimes it is not.

Obviously the Holocaust did happen, it was a horrible atrocity, and it was mass murder perpetrated by fascists against innocent victims. So publishing a cartoon or statement in order to suggest the Holocaust didn't happen, or that it was a good thing, would be morally wrong (though within one's political rights, excepting incitement to violence). Similarly, publishing a drawing or statement in order to promote racism would be morally wrong, though free speech protects expressions of racism. (Of course, in order to criticize a racist or otherwise immoral message, it might be necessary to reproduce it...)

A reader asked me about the meaning of the phrase, "incitement to violence," and about whether the Danish cartoons might be considered to have incited Muslims to violence. The Danish cartoons most certainly do not constitute "incitement to violence." However, some Muslim statements urging violence and murder do incite other Muslims to violence.

In two e-mails reproduced (and edited) below, I offered a more complete explanation of the phrase, "incitement to violence."

* * *

* The right of free expression properly covers any and all beliefs and expressions, as consistent with the property rights of others. Following are some implications of this.

* The political right of free speech protects the right to express ideas immorally (with exceptions outlined below). For instance, racism is immoral, and advocacy of racism is immoral (because racism is irrational and unfair). However, people have a political right to express racist beliefs.

* The term "right" has two distinct meanings. In the political context, a "right" is a protection of action within some sphere (properly defined by property rights). In the moral context, an action is "right" if it meets the requirements of the proper ethical system. So, yes, one has the political right to do many things that are, in fact, immoral (or wrong), including but not limited to the following: consuming dangerous levels of alcohol, practicing unprotected sex, advocating racism, advocating socialism, eating an unhealthy diet, and joining a cult.

* One does not have a political right to express beliefs in a way that violates the rights of others. For example, the reason that there is no right to yell fire in a crowded theater (when there is no fire) is that doing so would violate the property rights of the theater owner (and, by extension, of the patrons who paid money to see a movie). There is no right to reproduce copyrighted material without permission. There is no right to slander others (though in this case as in some others the proper remedy is a civil case, not prior restraint). There is no right to break into a private establishment for purposes of delivering a speech. And there is no right to incite others to particular acts of violence. Some cases can be ambiguous. A clear example of something that should be protected is general advocacy of racism (even though such advocacy is immoral). A clear example of something that should NOT be protected is the distribution of literature that calls for the murder of particular individuals (which would be incitement to violence).

* * *

It is crucial to understand the meaning of "incitement to violence." Properly, that concept refers to somebody actively urging violence against particular individuals. For example, it should be against the law for Joe to distribute pamphlets that state, "Murder my neighbor Jim because..." It should also be against the law for Joe to advertise for the services of a hitman.

The question is, does the speech in question purposely and clearly attempt to get others to commit an act of violence against innocent parties? (As I acknowledged, some cases can be ambiguous, but most are clear-cut.)

The Danish cartoons do not incite anyone to violence in the relevant sense. The cartoons don't encourage anyone to commit violence against any Muslim or any other party. Instead, (some of) the cartoons criticize Islam for its tendencies to violence and oppression of women. (As I argued, such criticisms are totally warranted by the facts.) In response, many Muslims have committed acts of violence and threatened violence.

To say that the cartoons incited Muslims to violence would be to blame the cartoonists for the irrational and immoral behavior of the Muslims. Such an approach would blame the victims of crimes for the crimes. Consider also the following examples:

* If somebody wrote an article claiming that Marxism is false, and then a Marxist murdered the author, to claim that the article incited the Marxist to violence would be to claim that the author is to blame for his or her own murder and that the Marxist is excused.

* If somebody said, "Jesus is not the son of God," and then a Christian beat the person to a bloody pulp, the misapplication of the notion of "incitement to violence" would blame the "blasphemer" and excuse the Christian.

* If a person wrote, "Black people should be treated equally under the law," and then the person was attacked by a member of the Ku Klux Klan, to accuse the speaker of "incitement to violence" would be to empower the violent racism of the Ku Klux Klan.

"Incitement to violence" can legitimately apply only to actual encouragement of violence against specific innocent parties by a speaker or writer. It cannot apply to a statement or image that prompts irrational reactions by others who hear or see it. If the author of some message can be blamed for the irrational reaction to the message by some other party, then there is no such thing as free speech, for the subjective whims of anyone can trump free speech on any occasion.

Several of the Danish cartoons are critiques of irrational violence. The fact that some Muslims reacted with violence only proves that the cartoonists are correct in their critiques.

* * *

I also wrote in the earlier article, "...Muslims believe that any image of Mohammed should not be published. That's an inherently irrational view, and thus of no moral standing."

In his February 11 column for the Rocky Mountain News, Dave Kopel adds important context: "Contrary to repeated claims by the Associated Press, it is not a fact that Islamic law forbids artistic depictions of Muhammad. The prohibition against depiction of any prophet (not just Muhammad) is not explicitly Quranic, but is a mere interpretation favored by some clerics; the interpretation is hardly unanimous, as shown by the long Islamic tradition of drawing pictures of Muhammad."

The Colorado Freedom