Security was tight at the National First Amendment Summit at the National Constitution Center on Wednesday, Sept. 13.

Attendees were told to bring a photo ID and to leave briefcases, pocketbooks, and rucksacks at home, although there were provisions for dollhouse-sized pocketbooks — the kind most women don’t carry. 

There was additional security in the form of TSA-like pat-downs outside the Center as attendees stood in line to check in at the registration table, which was placed outside under a blazing 4 p.m. sun — so blazing, in fact, that the NCC registrars would occasionally hold up papers to shield their eyes.

There was over-the-top security because the main speaker was Salman Rushdie, the controversial author of “The Satanic Verses,” a book deemed blasphemous by some Muslims and especially the Ayatollah Khomeini, who, in 1989, put a bounty (or fatwa) on Rushdie’s head for “blasphemy against Islam.”

The irony here is that Rushdie would not be physically present at the summit but would appear via Zoom on a large screen.

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Screen or no screen, organizers weren’t taking any chances. A Zoom appearance is still an appearance of sorts. Fanatics will try anything to gain access to Rushdie, even if that means impersonating a Philadelphia journalist or a bluejean-wearing, shirt-hanging-over-the-beltline middle-aged (woke) male NCC member eager to hear what Rushdie has to say.

After all, in August 2022, Rushdie was attacked onstage at the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, New York, by 24-year-old Hadi Matar of Fairview, New Jersey, who stabbed the author a dozen times, causing the author to be put on a ventilator and hospitalized for six weeks. That attack severely impaired Rushdie; he lost sight in his right eye and the use of his left hand. Fatwas never die.

Rushdie appeared on the NCC big screen with a patch over his right eye. He was introduced by Suzanne Nossel, Chief Executive Officer of PEN America and author of the book “Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All.”

In 1989, when the fatwa was placed over his head, Susan Sontag, then president of PEN, led the charge in his defense, encouraging PEN members to support the novelist. Sontag’s lead was courageous; her lead in this case put her in harm’s way.

As Paul Berman wrote in Dissent magazine:

“More than fifty people were killed around the world as a result of the ayatollah’s fatwa and anti-Rushdie rioting. Rushdie’s Japanese translator was killed, and two Norwegian bookstores were bombed. A suicide bomber attacked a British hotel, and Rushdie’s Italian translator was stabbed. It took courage to stand up for Rushdie.”

After a standing ovation for his on-screen presentation, Rushdie and Nossel began their conversation. 

Rushdie began by denouncing Donald Trump as an authoritarian in a soft rant that Jihad Watch writer Robert Spencer called “pandering to the leftist [NCC] crowd.”

Spencer also cited Rushdie for ignoring “the Biden’s regime’s repeated demonstration of disdain for the freedom of expression” in his on-screen comments.

Let’s stop right here. Was the NCC crowd that evening really leftist?

I tried to ascertain this fact during the wonderful opening reception. Of course, the easiest but most superficial way to recognize a “leftist crowd” is by the clothes they wear. The urban style of dress for many left-leaning men tends to be jeans and sloppy, wrinkled shirts hanging out over the belt line. I call this the John Fetterman hoodie and baggy sweatpants Slob Look, something Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) recently honored when he abolished the dress code for the U.S. Senate. 

While there were some dressed-down Fetterman types at the summit, there were also many suits. (Sometimes leftists like to dress up.) Generally, the NCC works hard to traverse the fine line between left and right ideologies in American politics. NCC president and CEO Jeffrey Rosen is always skilled when moderating debates centered around ideological issues.

I suddenly realized why I don’t like Rushdie’s fiction: it seems cemented in the worst sort of cynicism.

Rushdie was forthright in condemning Germany for making denying the Holocaust a crime. Laws like this, he said, only glamorize the forbidden and end up encouraging law breakers. 

His trashing of Trump was more or less expected, even though Trump as president was always a valiant defender of free speech in a way Biden is not.

Yet Rushdie trashed England, the country that provided him with ten years of high security at taxpayer’s expense after the 1989 fatwa.

“England used to be this glorious country, and it could be that glorious country again if only we could get rid of all these foreigners. Of course, they neglected to mention to the electorate that the reason England was so prosperous was that it had spent 200 years plundering the rest of the world,” Rushdie told the NCC crowd.

Rushdie also trashed the United States by implying (when talking about MAGA) that it was never, ever a great country. He said this despite the fact, as Spencer pointed out, that the famed novelist never had “to bring along any kind of security detail, whether at a theater, out to dinner, or at a public event” the entire time he was in the UK or in the US.

Rushdie went on to condemn all forms of religious fanaticism, be it Islamic, Hindu, or Christian, seeming to suggest that the last two were on a par with Islamic fanaticism (in frequency and seriousness). Going out on an even thinner limb, he cited the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade as an example of “Christian fanaticism and terrorism.”

Listening to this, I suddenly realized why I don’t like Rushdie’s fiction. I don’t like it because it seems cemented in the worst sort of cynicism.

Anyway, the bottom (cynical) line here is that Rushdie has a “thing” against religion.

This is plainly evident when you listen to him closely. He seems to resent even the most moderate displays of religious faith. One prime example was his reaction when his friend, the travel writer Bruce Chatwin, died of HIV/AIDS after his conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy and then had a big funeral in a Greek Orthodox cathedral. Rushdie made a disparaging remark about the service, calling the event “Chatwin’s last joke on his friends.”

As if he couldn’t conceive of a highly intelligent person taking Christianity seriously. 

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The First Amendment Summit also included three 45-minute panels on free speech and First Amendment rights. They included the origins of the First Amendment, the First Amendment in the Courts, and the First Amendment on Campus and Online.

Participants included Will Creeley, the legal director at FIRE, a free speech advocacy group; Jeannie Suk Green, a professor of law at Harvard Law; Jameel Jaffer of Columbia University; Akhil Reed Amar; Nadine Strossen; and others. 

All the participants were lawyers of one kind or another. This constitutes my one and only criticism of NCC: too many lawyers. Why not panels of journalists who have actively worked in the fields and jungles of free speech and may have grassroots experiences to share?

Yet what was fascinating to me while listening to these various panelists was the unanimity of opinion that free speech, no matter how objectionable or distasteful, is the foundation of democracy and therefore must be protected.

And yet, despite the many examples offered of free speech violations, most especially on American campuses, there was a disturbing reluctance among the panelists to name the elephant in the room, that being that free speech violations are not equally divided between the right and the left in American politics but concentrated mostly on the left.

Several panelists went out of their way to say that both the right and left were equally guilty of free speech censorship. The DeSantis ban of CRT textbooks or gender ideology textbooks for children as an example of free speech bans — rather than as an issue involving parents’ rights versus the government — was a weak argument.

Certainly anyone who has been paying attention to the culture wars knows that it is the left born out of the Democrat Party that has cultivated a mindset of censorship, especially on college campuses where conservatives are either banned or forced off stage, or in some cases, their lectures, threatened by violence.

The third panel on Campus First Amendment issues was the most interesting to me. Nadine Strossen was especially descriptive in her explanations of how college students today are actually afraid of other students (because of alien ideas they may harbor), and as such, they consider confronting ideas in the classroom that they are not familiar with or ideas that they find distasteful to be a form of bullying.

The panel agreed that students today lack an understanding of history and civics, and that the arc of disagreement and being challenged by ideas that make you uncomfortable is the opposite of bullying but, in fact, is the foundation of a good, classical education.

I found it ironic that the entire NCC Summit condemned bans on free speech without once acknowledging the fact that in 2023, it is the woke left that is primarily the guilty party here and not the right. 

This was something everyone seemed afraid to say.

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, and Frontpage Magazine. He is the author of fifteen books, including “Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” His latest, “Death in Philadelphia: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest” was released in May 2023.

3 thoughts on “Thom Nickels: United for free speech at the National Constitution Center”

  1. I agree with the author’s central points but the part about liberal vs. conservative dress really is a very weak argument and the article would stronger without it. Granted, some styles of clothing can be indicative of social or political persuasions, but t-shirt and jeans are literally all-American—as in they are garments invented in America and worn but all strata. Please don’t politicize the t-shirt and jeans look.

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