Monday, July 17, 2006

Insults & Free Speech

Joseph Kellard notes a bizarre case out of Turkey.

The New York Sun reports on July 13 that the Turkish government may jail a novelist because she supposedly “insulted Turkishness.” The government tried to prosecute this novelist, Elif Shafak, in June on the same outlandish Turkish criminal code that prohibits denigration of any aspect of Turkish culture. The charges were dropped after a prosecutor argued that “the book is a work of fiction and therefore does not represent the view of the author,” according to the Sun. But a higher court overruled this decision following complaints from a group of nationalist lawyers.

Both Shafak and her publisher speculate that the alleged “anti-Turkish” part of her novel concerns comments a character makes about the Turkish massacre of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915. In recent decades, the Turkish government has denied the massacre took place.

Meanwhile, PEN, an “artistic rights” organization, defends Shafak on the same awful grounds as the aforementioned prosecutor, that is, “Writers shouldn’t be held responsible for what their characters say and do,” a PEN director said.

Actually, a novelist who creates a fictional character *is responsible* for whatever that character says and does. She is responsible for her character’s views, since the character is her creation, just as Ayn Rand was responsible for creating Ellsworth Toohey. But all of this is irrelevant to the fundamental issue involved in this case. That is, like the Danish cartoonists who depicted Mohammad wearing a bomb for a turban, Shafak has the right to write whatever she wants, insults or otherwise, and whether or not they are her views. If what she writes insults others, this violates no one’s right, but to prosecute her for this reason violates her right to free speech.

Those who ignore or evade these fundamental facts must then scramble for rationalizations, like arguing that a novelist who creates a character is not responsible for that creation. Instead of condemning the Turkish court for violating Shafak’s right to free speech, and upholding that rights, PEN tries to deny that the novelist is responsible for creating an “anti-Turkish” character, in a fruitless attempt to distance her from any connection to violating an elastic, irrational standard: denigrating Turkish culture.

Like the feeble, so-called defenders of the Danish cartoonists, PEN needs a primer on why free speech is an absolute. Meanwhile, chalk up another strike against this fundamental right, at least in Turkey.

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