A Harley dealership recently stirred up some controversy with its digital sign.
A college professor, Khuram Hussain, sent an email to the company to complain that he was offended by a message being displayed by the sign: “Obama is Not a Christian! He is a Muslim!!!” He said that the sign made him feel “unwelcome.”
The sign also displayed another message, which was not seen by Hussain: “Obama are you kidding? We’re not Muslim. You are not Christian!!”
Erik J. Dunk, the owner of the dealership’s owner, said that he had not changed his message and denied an intent to insult Muslims. He did call Hussain a “typical weenie liberal” for being offended by the sign.
While Hussain was no doubt offended by the sign, we do not have a moral right not to be offended. Nor should we have a legal right against things that merely offend us. When something crosses over from merely offensive to actually being harmful, then we would have a right not to be exposed to such a thing. Naturally, some things that are offensive can also cross over into being harmful. For example, calling for the killing of Muslims would be offensive and also something that would be harmful.
While what the dealer displayed about Obama was not nice, the dealer does have a moral and legal right to express his views. To justify restricting his right, it would need to be shown that what he expresses is harmful enough to override this right. Just as a person’s right to free expression is overridden by safety concerns when it comes to yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, other sorts of harmful expressions can be justly limited. The challenge is, of course, showing that enough harm is likely to be caused by the such an expression.
Claiming that Obama is a Muslim might offend some, but it hardly seems to be a harmful act. It can, of course, be taken as expressing contempt for Islam-after all, saying that Obama is a Muslim is not intended to praise him. However, it can also be seen as simply claiming that Obama is being duplicitous-that he claims to be a Christian when he is actually a Muslim. While that assertion is not true, it does not seem to be a claim with enough harm to warrant censoring it.
One price we pay for our freedom of expression is that we have to be willing to tolerate being offended (within certain limits). After all, my freedom of expression depends on others tolerating my expressions and I must, to be consistent, extend this toleration to them. This does not mean we have to agree with each other or even like what is being said. After all, to tolerate something is to put up with it and to endure something that might be unpleasant. While Hussain does not like what the sign says, he has the right to speak out against it. He can even buy or make a sign of his own and put it up to counter the sign he does not like. That is how freedom of expression works-you get to say what you think, even if other people think you are saying offensive things or being a weenie.
While I would not say the things Dunk says on his sign and I would be inclined not to do business there, he does have the moral right to express his views. His sign does not cross the line of harm, hence there is not an adequate justification to compel him to stop doing what he is doing.
Obviously, it can be argued that the sign does cross that line. However, the burden of proof rests on the person who makes such a claim. What was displayed does not directly attack Muslims nor does it say anything derogatory about the faith. It does not endorse violence nor encourage any wrongful behavior. As such, it is hard to find a tangible harm present.
Of course, as a Harley dealer the main company might tell him to stop doing that. In this case, whether the company has the right or not depends on the contract he has with Harley Davidson. If their corporate policy allows them to restrict what dealers display on the signs, then Dunk would be obligated to honor his agreement with the company and change what he displays. If not, then he would still be free to do as he wishes.
While I do agree that people do have a right not to be exposed to truly hateful and harmful words, we do not have the right to censor others simply because we find something they say offensive. Living in a free society does not mean living in bland and fluffy land without anything offensive. We will see and hear things we do not like. Deal with it…or be a liberal weenie. Or a conservative weenie, for those offended by liberal stuff.