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Protect free expression

Welcome to the first “International Free Press Day,” commemorating the start of a cartoon controversy in Denmark that showcased the conflict between freedom of the press and efforts to protect religion from insult.

It was September 30, 2005 when a gutsy Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published 12 cartoons of Islam’s prophet, Mohammed. It sought to demonstrate that, in Denmark and the West, freedom of the press was and should remain a higher value than the prohibition in Islamic lawagainst depicting the prophet.

Was it something I said?

The controversy – which fueled violence in the Middle East and Africa, boycotts of Danish products, and tensions between Denmark and Islamic nations – opened our eyes to the ferocity of that conflict. But it did not produce the needed resolve across the West to ensure that freedom continues to prevail.

Four years later, freedom of the press – and free expression in general – remains under attack on a host of fronts across the West. Many, though not all, of the attacks are rooted in religious sensitivity. Some play out in courtrooms, others in the court of public opinion. And, most disheartening, some derive not from attacks from the outside but from self-censorship to prevent such attacks.

The International Free Press Society, which proclaimed International Free Press Day, is marking the occasion by sponsoring a public tour in the United States for Kurt Westergaard, who penned perhaps the most controversial of the 12 Danish cartoons – the one of the prophet with a bomb in his turban.

Westergaard was later forced to take a state security detail after Islamic extremists placed a $1 million price on his head, and he was the subject of an assassination plot that Danish police discovered early this year. A day after that discovery, other Danish newspapers published the same cartoon in a show of solidarity with him and his cause. More recently, he emerged from hiding to contribute fresher cartoons, satirizing Islam and politicians who appease its radicals, to a book.

Westergaard is scheduled to visit New York City, Yale, and Princeton. His stop in New Haven should prove particularly interesting, for the Yale University Press in recent weeks forced the author of a forthcoming book on the cartoon controversy to withdraw the 12 cartoons from the finished product.

Officials said that, after consulting with experts, they feared that publishing the cartoons might incite more violence. Other experts scoffed at the notion and, in a protest, one removed his favorable blurb from the book.

Free-speech advocates, meanwhile, complained that, as the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote to Yale President Richard Levin and members of Yale’s governing corporation, “this misguided action establishes a dangerous precedent that threatens academic and intellectual freedom around the world.”

The same pattern of strident attack and inconsistent response is playing out in other venues around the world.

Take, for instance, the practice known as “libel tourism,” in which foreigners sue writers and publishers in British courts – which put the libel burden on writers – to shield themselves from public criticism. They gain standing in Britain when, say, a book published in New York sells a few copies in London.

The leading practitioner of libel tourism, Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz, died in late August. He had sued more than 40 writers and publishers, according to one of his targets, the writer Rachel Ehrenfeld. She claimed that he had raised funds for al Qaeda before the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Several states, including Ehrenfeld’s home state of New York, have enacted laws to protect their home-grown writers from judgments in lax overseas libel courts. But, while the House passed a version of federal legislation, a stronger version remains bottled up in the House and Senate. So, while bin Mahfouz is gone, the threat of libel tourism for writers across the United States remains.

Meanwhile, the multi-national Organization of the Islamic Conference is seeking to use the United Nations, its Human Rights Council, and other bodies to create global rules to shield Islam from attack.

And, in another corresponding effort at self-censorship, the United States and other Western governments have taken steps to ensure that their official communications do not suggest ties between terrorism and Islam.

The creation of International Free Press Day is a welcome development. If it stiffens the collective Western spine to protect our highest values from attack, it will prove a worthy endeavor.