Free Speech has Liberals Tongue-tied

As Janet Albrechtsen described (2005) in her article, “Free speech has liberals tongue-tied,” her article clearly shows her stance on the issue of free speech and how it has caused an unlikely reaction from some of the world’s most firm advocates of free speech—the democrats. By citing the example of the major uproar in the Middle East (and the rest of the Muslim community across the world) caused over the publication of twelve cartoons in a Danish newspaper, she argues that the decision to publish the cartoons does not infringe on human rights; in fact, publishing them is “justifiable” since it is a form of freedom of speech.  

To me, free speech can either be a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ or ‘weapon of mass persuasion’.  I hope to analyze this article through the lens of ethos, pathos and logos of Ms. Albrechtsen’s article. She states that our society’s progress towards free speech has been overshadowed by the chaos created by Muslims who overreacted. Another article written by Rex Jory proclaimed that ‘freedom speech must prevail over violence’ (Jory, 2005, p.18) To the Muslims, it is about defamation and obscenity. Ideally, it is about influence. Influence is control, persuasion, power, authority, mastery, management, character and reputation. It exists in every dimension of our human life. Some measure it as the factor that controls all living things and our environment.  

But what is the nature of free speech? What are its effects? Free speech exists within the human psychology and social needs. It is a process… a journey… to a destination of desired success. There is a misconception that publications, economies and even government agencies have fallen as victims to the chain reaction supposedly caused by this “weapon of mass destruction” (hereby referred as WMD for short).   

Graham Perkin, the former editor of The Age, said the important story has it roots in the past and a stake in the future (White, 1999). Such is a story with rhetorical communication – the pathway to influence. There are three factors: desire, understanding, and experience. (McCroskey, 1997, p.19) Within these three frameworks, we can see its effects of how the creation of twelve pictures depicting the Prophet Mohammed produced comprehension of words, interaction of persons and even the clash of civilizations.

In the article, Albrechtsen mentioned that assumptions and speculations had arisen due to publishing the cartoons. The good intentions of producing a children book about the holy prophet ended up with disaster and chaos in the middle-east. There’s no doubt these accidental communication, expressive communication and rhetorical communication (McCroskey, 1997, p.21) has helped to understand the science of this WMD. In exchanging ideas, we may encounter different forms of interpretation or certain assumptions than what we intend. In conveying the message to have freedom of speech, whether be it emotional or motivational, people will speak with conviction and personal beliefs. In this journey to influence, we each have a goal, in seeking to produce a specific meaning to the mind of another individual (McCroskey 1997, p.22). To make free speech a concept of persuasion rather than destruction, we need to see the cause and effect on society.           

Albrechtsen views freedom of expression to that of a society in which people can use media as their source of info and make certain decisions or opinions or actions based on media influences (Hudson, 1994). We see evidence of logical persuasion; hence, the process involves encoding, transmitting, decoding and responding. Albrechtsen’s effectively compares how each nation communicated the message of the twelve cartoons using an ethos or credibility stance. It is effective and a well rounded analysis because Denmark encoded it with sincerity to accept Muslims into its society. They transmitted it using a satirical cartoon form which is subtle, giving alternative views to Muslims. Yet, we also see how leaders in the Arab and Muslim countries decoded it as a violation of human rights and responded with bomb threats, boycott and hunger strikes. Truly, this article has helped to break down the different layers of the art of persuasion within the context of the different government’s effectiveness and openness with free speech. (McCroskey, 1997, p.23) 

The process of communication and openness of free speech within religion is totally different. The evidence of pathos or emotional persuasion within the Muslim community reveals their earnest and united cause for jihad against anyone who blasphemes against their holy prophet. Many metaphors are being used and this will lead to many different interpretation and assumptions on the part of the reader. However, in The Conduit Metaphor (Reddy 1979), it shows the various ways that these assumptions can fail. This “Conduit Metaphor” according to Reddy is when the source (in this case Mohammed) puts ideas into words and sends the words to the receiver, who therefore receives the ideas. Thus there may be some ideas that will be overlooked by that someone who wrote the words or that the ideas were misinterpreted (McCroskey, 1997, p.25). The article reveals how some society is rejected by Muslims. In some instance, they demand a special position and consideration of their own religious feelings. Albrechtsen logically shows the differences in democracy and freedom of speech in comparison to the tolerance of Muslims religious feelings which should not be made fun of at any price. The logos, or logical method reveals that any confrontation with Muslims, especially the extremist, will lead to a slippery slope, despite the accidental or intentional motivation of printing those cartoons.   

Satire has been an alternative way to communicate a message with a touch of humor. Political rhetoric also shows the ‘factual issues’ in societies. (Cockcroft, Cockcroft, 2005, p113) Evidently, each country and its political parties have different views about the publication of the cartoons. Many regard and use functions of cause and effect. The attitude of how each government body persuades is seen in the article and is a key aspect of the stance that each country takes on issues of free speech versus expression of degradation. In reference to Kress (1988), ‘communication, the ideas and activities is a matter of great public interest.’ 

There are three important distinctions within the article that we can consider how the cartoons were communicated. Firstly, the intended meaning was not seen as what Jyllands-Posten (Denmark’s international newspaper) wanted but anti-Muslim sentiments were accidentally communicated. Secondly, we see the Muslim community being ‘expressive’ or source-centered communication with the media. The opposite is also true that the governments take ‘rhetorical’ stance which is receiver-centered. Thirdly, we see the distinction between investigation and rhetorical communication (McCroskey, 1997, p.31) where most democratic governments want to reduce confusion by concealing what they thought of the cartoons and choose not to investigate further if it is free speech in the form of pictures. This logic of political parties is seen with Albrechtsen’s quote ‘freedom of expression is one thing, but it should not be confused with acts of inciting feelings’ and ‘if freedom of speech means anything, it means the right to offend the sensibilities of others’. (Albrechtsen, 2005, p.8) 

In hind-sight we saw how trade embargoes and boycotts were carried out on Danish products. Millions of dollars was lost. It was an expensive cause standing for freedom of expression. How did twelve cartoons spark this conflict across the Middle East? Albrechtsen mentions that ‘it’s an impossible dream’ because of the different opinions in those cartoons. She speaks with an emotional pathos stance in that freedom speaks with acceptance and openness and unbiased views. Opposition on the other hand speaks with sensibilities and idol-like devotion with forceful implications. She questioned the democrat’s commitment that governments should stand up for what they believe in free speech instead of surrendering to threats and fear of the terror. 

There are some fallacies experienced by publishing agencies in printing the cartoons. They fear the meanings which are found in the words and nonverbal symbols or pictures. Then there are the misconceptions and failures to recognize the goodness and importance of how the receivers hear or read the cartoons. The notion that Muslims are tolerable to communicate and laugh over these cartoons is questionable. Communicating these cartoons thus did not solve the problems in the world with the exception that Muslims in Denmark debated on freedom of expression, freedom of religion and respect for people’s religious beliefs.  

 Danish Cartoons

Jyllands-Posten first published the cartoons in September of 2005. It has been regarded by many as outspoken opinions of the Danish society whose reputation is that of having unbiased news (JP information, 2007). This ideology however is not the view of society here in Asia, much less the Middle East. It was after all, a confrontation on taboo issues within Islam and perhaps evoked a deep sense of anger over injustice towards Muslims which was probably in existence within the culture. It was a stab in the wound for many Muslim governments and agencies. With the recent wars and loss of lives in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan and Pakistan, it seemed that the world did not care, especially the West. There wasn’t much interest or support in developing these Muslims societies. The result of publishing these cartoons also demonstrated the weakness of the Muslims in that they are not as mighty as Europe. The reprinting and courage to have free speech from the Danes also shows that Muslim sensitivities can be ignored in spite of all the demonstrations and assaults on Danish embassies worldwide.

In another article written by Mirko Bagaric from The Advertiser, he explored the important moral issue of whether to publish or not to publish these cartoons. He concluded that the truth is that the end does justify the means and that a decision not to publish it will teach us valuable lessons about our moral codes (Bagaric, 2006). We see this logic of promoting free speech versus what is offensive and confrontational throughout many publications. There is some good in not publishing the cartoons, as this breaks the fallacy where the more communication there is, the better it is. So are the liberals tongue-tied by not publishing these cartoons? This reading has helped me to see that communication is not just about courage, but about important decisions we make to edit or misguide people’s beliefs and human rights. 

What do we know of the virtues of free speech? Why did it take Europe by surprise when Muslims all over the world reacted in anger? Is it a reflection of ignorance of the conditions of these Muslim worlds? Could free speech a weapon of mass destruction as implied?  

In conclusion, I believe the goals of free speech should be parallel with human rights issues. Despite the strong beliefs on both sides, each must engage and reflect what this has caused. I agree with Albrechtsen’s view that we need to uphold free speech. Nevertheless, it should not be at the expense of adding insult to taboos and sensitivities within societies. It is like what Bagaric says ‘as a community we lose nothing by not seeing the cartoons, but no moral principle could justify publishing offensive cartoons that will anger religious sensibilities (Bagaric, 2006).   


Bagaric, M (2006), The Advertiser, Moral Dilemma, 7th February 2006, Adelaide. 

Cockcroft, R & Cockcroft, S (2005), Persuading People: An Introduction to Rhetoric, 2nd edition, Palgrave Macmillan, New York. 

Hudson, Marian (1994). Chapter 1 ‘The power of the media’, in The media game: an insider’s guide to powerful publicity. Melbourne: Longman, pg3 

JP information (2007) Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten, viewed 23rd May 2007, 

Kress, G (1988), Communication and culture: an introduction, NSWUP, Kensington, NSW. 

Reddy, Michael J (1979). The Conduit Metaphor : A case of frame conflict in our language about language. Metaphor and Thought Cambridge : Cambridge University Press 

White, Sally (1991). ‘What is news?’ in Reporting in Australia. South Melbourne: Macmillian Education Australia, pg.11  


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