In a visit to the University of Vermont, novelist Salman Rushdie defended freedom of speech as something that should have no limits placed on it. The comments came in the wake of last week's attack on a Paris satire journal that left 12 dead.
"The moment you limit free speech, it's not free speech," Rushdie told the crowd at an event presented by the Vermont Humanities Council and UVM. "The point about it is it's free."
Rushdie, whose 1988 novel "The Satanic Verses" drew death threats after Iranian religious leaders labeled it blasphemous, told the crowd it is the job of artists to push boundaries and challenge institutions that don't want to hear what writers, painters, performers, illustrators, or others have to say.
In the wake of the attack on the satire journal Charlie Hebdo, there have been debates in Europe over whether free speech has limits, especially when dealing with sensitive religious topics. Known for its blistering criticism of many varied institutions, Charlie Hebdo published cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, which many Muslims would consider provocative, sacrilegious, or distasteful. The extremists behind the massacre that killed 12 reportedly were trying to avenge Muhammad.
Rushdie called it "disgraceful" for anyone to imply the satirists killed in last week's terror attack in Paris were racist or went too far for exercising their freedom of speech.
The author said there should be no conditions placed on free speech; anyone who does, he referred to as the “but brigade.” "The minute I hear someone say, 'Yes, I believe in free speech, but...' I stop listening," Rushdie said, drawing a round of applause.
Rushdie noted that people, of course, may be opposed to the content of Charlie Hebdo or other boundary-pushing creative efforts. "You can dislike Charlie Hebdo. Not all their drawings were funny," the writer said. "The fact that you dislike them has got nothing to do with their right to speak. The fact you dislike them certainly doesn't in any way excuse their murder."
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During the Burlington event, Rushdie did not speak in any detail of the time he spent with death threats hanging over his head. He did say there is a long history of writers and other thinkers who have been targeted for their work, but whose work ended up standing up to the test of time.
There was a police presence at Rushdie's presentation, which had been scheduled well before the attack in Paris. Security personnel were also checking bags as people entered the Ira Allen Chapel on the UVM campus. A university spokesman told New England Cable News such measures are routine for high-profile speakers at the University of Vermont.