Press Freedom Not Always Paramount

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Senior news analyst Daniel Schorr says that American media outlets made the correct decision in deciding not to republish a cartoon offensive to millions of Muslims. In times of tension, First Amendment rights may give way to other interests.


There was more protest and more violence today, fallout from the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. In Iran, hundreds of demonstrators threw stones and firebombs at the Danish Embassy. The cartoons were originally printed in a Danish newspaper. And in Afghanistan, Afghan troops shot and killed four protestors as they marched against the drawings. NPR's Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr has been watching the uproar, and he offers these personal observations.

DANIEL SCHORR (Senior News Analyst): As a certified defender of the First Amendment, I've been asked by many people, how come the American media invoked the people's right to know in breaching national security while acting with much more circumspection when it comes to combustible cartoons. The Danish cartoons, one of them depicting the Prophet Mohammed with a bomb under his turban, has triggered enraged demonstrations wherever there are sizeable Muslim populations. And the burning of the Danish missions in Beirut and Damascus.

In this country, the coverage has centered on the violent protests, but the offending cartoons are hard, almost impossible to find. There was no cartoon in the many newspapers I saw. ABC was the only television network I saw that carried a brief shot of one cartoon. NBC said without explanation that it was not showing the cartoon. NPR stated that it had decided not to post the cartoons on its website because they were highly offensive to millions of Muslims. The State Department straddled the issue saying that the cartoons were unacceptable, but defending the right of Danish and French newspapers to publish them.

The Committee to Protect Journalists in New York said, you have to hold your nose but they have a right to publish. So where do I stand? The easy answer is that freedom of speech implies freedom not to speak. No that's not quite good enough. But rights are best defended when employed responsibly.

In 1976 I was summoned before the House Ethics Committee which was investigating a leak of some secret information that I had caused to be published. And I was asked whether I would divulge anything I got no matter how much harm it might do. I said no, I would not. That I had learned over the years that rights are not absolute and may, especially in times of tension, have to give ground to other interests.

In 1919, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes held that the First Amendment does not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. Maybe a cartoon that may inflame millions should be described but not shown. This is Daniel Schorr.

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