Eugene Volokh highlights an incident in Mansfield, Ohio, where the Mansfield High School forced a local Tea Party group to change venues after the group invited an “anti-Islam” speaker. According to the school, the event was canceled not because of the speaker’s message but because the school — in consultation with the police — decided that it “could not guarantee public safety.” Neither Professor Volokh’s post nor the Mansfield News Journal article on which its based indicate a specific threat against the event, but the police and school were nonetheless sufficiently concerned to force the group to move.
The Left often scoffs at conservatives who warn of “creeping sharia” or warn about the increasing influence of radical Islam within our own shores. After all, there’s hardly a sharia voting bloc in U.S. elections, our constitutional protections for free speech remain robust, and there is still an Establishment Clause that would stand as a firewall against any formal implementation of sharia even if, by chance, radical Muslims gained a dominant position in a small town or community.
But the incident above illustrates the power of “vigilante sharia,” the all-too-often demonstrated willingness of radicals to go outside the law to enforce sharia norms on the rest of the community. Did Yale University Press censor the Mohammad cartoons in a book about the Mohammad cartoons because of formal sharia or vigilante sharia?
In a follow-up post, Eugene demonstrates the effectiveness of thuggery as censorship:
The most cost-effective thuggery of all, though, is when your thuggery keeps on giving: When some violence or threats of violence lead government officials (and perhaps university administrators, bookstores, and the like) to suppress speech even without any specific threat, just because they know that this is the sort of speech that could lead to violence (after all, it did somewhere else). Once the original investment of risk has been made, and the climate of menace has been created, no-one even has to e-mail in a threat. Now that’s a high return on the initial investment — a high reward, which leads to a high likelihood of repetition.
Like Professor Volokh, I do sympathize with officials who are trying to protect the public. Their job is difficult, and the stakes are high. In our society, however, it is vital that we shift the incentives. Violent or (more commonly) merely threatening radicals should fear law enforcement more than citizens should fear the radicals.