Jack Ohman

Cartoonists should not die for what they draw

FBI crime scene investigators document evidence outside the Curtis Culwell Center, Monday, May 4, 2015, in Garland, Texas. Two men opened fire with assault weapons on police Sunday night who were guarding a contest for Muslim Prophet Muhammed cartoons. A police officer returned fire killing both men.
FBI crime scene investigators document evidence outside the Curtis Culwell Center, Monday, May 4, 2015, in Garland, Texas. Two men opened fire with assault weapons on police Sunday night who were guarding a contest for Muslim Prophet Muhammed cartoons. A police officer returned fire killing both men. AP

Now that the Islamic jihad against cartoons apparently has come to Garland, Texas, let’s again review what the First Amendment covers.

The First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting free exercise thereof; or the right abridging freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

That’s it. It’s pretty clear.

The First Amendment protects all people from U.S. government interference in their religious practices, just as it protects cartoonists. In our country, free speech is a given, a birthright. It is, as we know, a free country.

Equally, cartoonists have the right to criticize jihad. If it’s worthy, their work might even appear in the newspaper. People have the right to peaceably assemble and denounce cartoons.

The First Amendment does not say, “It is perfectly acceptable to kill cartoonists, or artists, even if a group sponsoring a tasteless and repellent anti-Muslim art show is run by a lunatic.”

I’m president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists this year. I have spent much of my time reacting to the slaughter at Charlie Hebdo, the jailing of cartoonists in the Middle East and Malaysia, and, now, explaining in a press release why cartoonists and artists who express a political point of view shouldn’t be sprayed with gunfire in Texas.

It’s all disconcerting.

I take my responsibilities seriously. My editors give me as much leeway as I need to express my opinion, and I am conscious of my audience. I would not draw the kinds of cartoons that appeared in Charlie Hebdo, nor would The Bee publish them. We certainly wouldn’t insult any religion gratuitously, as seemed to be the point of the gathering in Texas.

But free speech isn’t pretty. It wasn’t pretty when Nazis marched in Skokie, Ill., when Andres Serrano put a crucifix in a glass of urine and called it “Piss Christ,” or when Larry Flynt ran a parody of Jerry Falwell having sex with his mother.

Free speech is easy when the subject is Marmaduke, or involves yelling at umpires at baseball games, or writing snippy and ill-informed emails about how I should draw Hillary Clinton.

Free speech is about Going There. Whether to Go There is the choice of the speaker, writer or artist. But the speaker, writer or artist shouldn’t have to worry about being murdered for making that decision.

Free speech is good for conservatives, moderates, liberals, Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, Zoroastrians, Wiccans, Seventh Day Adventists, pagans, the guy preaching on the street corner, Charlie Sheen, Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, Elizabeth Warren, Garry Trudeau, Rush Limbaugh, Rachel Maddow and the other 318.9 million people who live in this country.

The Founding Fathers didn’t tweet. They didn’t post on Instagram. They didn’t pay $3.99 per minute to listen to pornographic chat. They didn’t watch Fox News or MSNBC. They didn’t have Facebook pages or cellphones. They didn’t even have the telegraph.

They had newspapers, pamphlets and town criers. The delivery system didn’t matter. The content did. They knew freedom of speech and religion would be valuable and, indeed, mandatory 226 years later. They just knew.

Some people in this country still don’t.

I’m planning the annual political cartoonists convention later this year in Columbus, Ohio. Do you know what my main concerns are? They are security now. At a convention of cartoonists. How many police officers will be available to protect those who attend? Will I need a metal detector? Should the events be open to the public?

Words and illustrations have power. That’s why my colleagues and I do what we do. We can handle snippy emails. But no one should have to worry about getting shot at for speaking, praying, writing or drawing as they see fit.

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