Organizers of the Muhammad Art Exhibit in Garland, Texas, knew violence was a possibility.
They shelled out $10,000 for extra security to patrol the controversial event, which featured a speech by a Dutch politician who’s on al Qaida’s “hit list” and a contest for the best cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. Local law enforcement was on the alert. A SWAT team and a bomb squad patrolled.
The two gunmen who opened fire with assault weapons outside the exhibit on Sunday were killed by a police officer. They have been identified by law enforcement as Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, both of Phoenix. They appear, from social media posts, to have been motivated by a desire to become mujahedeen, or holy warriors.
The attack highlights the tensions between protecting Americans’ treasured right to freedom of expression and preserving public safety, and it raises questions about when – if ever – government should intervene.
There are two exceptions from the constitutional right to free speech – defamation and the doctrine of “fighting words” or “incitement,” said John Szmer, an associate professor of political science and a constitutional law expert at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
“Fighting words is the idea that you are saying something that is so offensive that it will lead to an immediate breach of the peace,” Szmer explained. “In other words, you are saying something and you should expect a violent reaction by other people.”
The exhibit of cartoons in Texas might have crossed the line, Szmer said.
“I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect what they were doing would incite a violent reaction,” he said.
Organizers knew, he said, that caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, which many Muslims consider insulting, have sparked violence before. In a recent case that drew worldwide attention, gunmen claiming allegiance with the self-described Islamic State killed 12 people in an attack on the Paris offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, which was known for satirical depictions of the Prophet Muhammad.
On the other hand, “fighting words can contradict the basic values that underlie freedom of speech,” Szmer said. “The views being expressed at the conference could be seen as social commentary. Political and social speech should be protected. You are arguably talking about social commentary.”
It’s unlikely that the issue will be tested in the Garland case, however, because prosecutors in Texas almost certainly won’t press charges against the conference organizers, he said.
The anti-Islam group that organized the art exhibit and contest in Garland is the American Freedom Defense Initiative, whose mission is the preservation “of freedom of speech, freedom of religion and equal rights for all,” according to its Facebook page.
The organization is categorized as an anti-Muslim hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors racist and sectarian organizations in the United States.
The group’s executive director, Pamela Geller, has attracted controversy with outrageous statements, such as that President Barack Obama is the “love child” of Malcolm X.
Geller wrote in her blog on Sunday that the shooting proved how much the event was needed.
“The freedom of speech is under violent assault here in our nation,” she wrote. “The question now before (us) is – will we stand and defend it, or bow to violence, thuggery, and savagery?”
She added, “This is war.”
A White House spokesman said Monday that no act of expression, even if it’s offensive, justifies an act of violence.
“We have seen extremists try to use expressions that they considered to be offensive as a way to justify violence not only in this country but around the world, and in the mind of the president there is no form of expression that would justify an act of violence,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.
Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, said that while the anti-Islam pronouncements by Geller and her allies are hateful, she was within her free speech rights to organize the exhibition in Texas.
“The violence that happened is unacceptable, and as ugly as the things that Geller was saying . . . the fact of the matter is that she should have had the right to exercise her First Amendment rights,” said Beirich. “People may hate what she’s doing in terms of her Muslim-bashing, but that doesn’t justify the violence.”
Beirich reserved her harshest criticism for public officials who not only fail to condemn hateful viewpoints, but associate with those who promote them.
She pointed out that the exhibit’s keynote speaker, Geert Wilders, a far-right Dutch politician who denounces Islam as a fascist religion, was welcomed last week in Washington by conservative Republican Reps. Louie Gohmert of Texas and Steve King of Iowa.
“It’s just despicable to be meeting people like that,” she said. “Public officials should be exercising their First Amendment rights by saying that all Muslims are not bad.”
The gunmen’s violent actions will end up drawing undeserved attention to the hateful message spread by Geller’s group, said David Schanzer, a professor at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy and director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.
“Any efforts to censor them or restrict their rights will just play into their agenda, which is to antagonize and spread a pretty vile message,” Schanzer said.
The best way to fight against people you disagree with is to confront their ideas, he said.
“I think their ideas are both wrong and actually makes problems worse through their actions,” Schanzer said. Echoing Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ well-known sentiment from 1927, he added: “I say we go against them by fighting speech with more speech.”
In Bradenton, Fla., anti-Islam activist Terry Jones said the Texas shooting made him more determined than ever to spread his message against Islam.
“Things like (the shooting in Texas) make us more determined to do it,” Jones said. “They knew that there would be police there, and it shows how brash and determined these people are.”
Jones, the pastor at Dove World Outreach Center, a fundamentalist church, gained worldwide notoriety for burning a Quran in public every year to mark the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Obama and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates even asked him not to do it because it could spark violent protests and provoke attacks against Americans overseas.
He put off one Quran burning event in 2010 and was arrested on unrelated charges on the way to another in 2013. Both Jones and Wilders, the anti-Islam Dutch politician who was featured as a speaker at the Texas exhibition, have been listed on an al Qaida wanted list “for crimes against Islam.”
Jones now owns a french fry stand in a local mall and plans to run for president.
He said in an interview that he’s not any more concerned about his safety than he was before Sunday’s shooting.
In fact, Jones said he plans to expand his “Fry Guy” business to a larger restaurant location in the University Mall in North Tampa. The first location is in DeSoto Square mall in Bradenton.
And he plans to hold another Quran-burning event on 9/11, possibly in the Bradenton area.
Anita Kumar in Washington and Janelle O’Dea of the Bradenton Herald in Bradenton, Fla., contributed to this article.