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TOLERANCE, OR CENSORSHIP?

Thomas Wadley is passionate about free speech. It offends him that most American newspapers have refused to publish the cartoons of the prophet Mohammed that ignited riots and violence across the Middle East.

So the lawyer painted two 3-by-4-foot plywood boards and put them up outside his home.

One is the flag of Denmark, where the cartoons were first published. The other is one of the cartoons, a drawing of Mohammed's head adorned with a green crescent and star, along with captions such as: "Since when is it o.k. to mock religion? Since always."

The St. Petersburg Times asked Ahmed Bedier, the local director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, for his reaction to the display. On his own, Bedier then contacted Wadley and said he wanted to sit down and talk.

Maybe if they met face to face, Bedier thought, he could persuade Wadley to take down his display. After all, last summer Bedier talked a Pinellas Park man into removing a protest in his yard that featured a toilet and a promise to flush the Koran.

On Wednesday evening, Wadley allowed Bedier into his home, on Eighth Ave N between Second and Third streets. At the dining room table, they debated free speech, Islam and the future of the Middle East.

"You're suggesting that the publication of a cartoon is irresponsible!" Wadley said.

"That's not what I'm suggesting!" replied Bedier. "People in the community have a responsibility to bring tolerance. We have to learn to get along. You're a role model in the community. People will look to you as an example."

Wadley shook his head: "In this country, we cannot be guided by religious tenets if some creed happens to be offended."

Wadley admires logic and skeptical thought so much that he once made a pilgrimage to Charles Darwin's grave while visiting England. He's 48, a single dad, a triathlete and a partner in a St. Petersburg law firm who's won some high-profile cases.

Bedier is 32, a stocky man with the build of a former high school football player. He gave up a high-paying job as an operations manager for a dental group to work for the Council on American-Islamic Relations because he wanted to teach others about Islam.

He told Wadley that the cartoons of Mohammed published in Denmark insulted Muslims; he likened them to Nazi caricatures that demonized Jews during World War II.

Bedier: "People censor themselves all the time. They (American news organizations) are acting properly."

Wadley: "My position is that it's cowardice. . . . This, to me, is more about American media and American culture." He said the media didn't publish "out of fear."

Bedier responded that no Muslim groups had tried to prevent news organizations from publishing the cartoons through legal or legislative means. The most they had done was write some letters to the editor. (The Times, like most American newspapers, has not published the cartoons.)

Bedier: "No one tried to make news organizations do anything. They exercised a choice . . . to respect groups in the community."

Wadley: "There is a difference between tolerance and respect. . . . We have an absolute, unmitigated right to question religion."

Wadley's 3-year-old son Kyle scampered around the house, sometimes crying for attention. Bedier chuckled and pulled up a photograph of his 3-year-old daughter Amira on his digital camera.

"She's adorable," Wadley said, smiling.

The two men agreed on some things. Both opposed the decision to go to war in Iraq, though Wadley said it's best to stay now because it's such a mess. Both had concerns about a government program to wiretap people inside the United States without seeking court approval.

But they could not budge each other on the cartoons.

"My choice is to demonstrate that the cartoons should have been published," Wadley said.

Bedier smiled and looked at his cell phone. It was getting late, and he had to go. "Well, at least we have some understanding," he said.

"I don't think we've come to any understanding," Wadley replied.

Bedier sighed and got up from the table.

Silence.

They chatted again about one of the few things they agreed on, the war in Iraq, and Wadley walked Bedier outside.

They shook hands on the front porch, near the two plywood boards, joked about Wadley's artistic skills (or lack thereof) for a few minutes and Bedier stepped out into the night.

Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathan@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

ON THE WEB

Most American news organizations, including the St. Petersburg Times, have decided against publishing the cartoons because of their offensive nature to Muslims. But the illustrations can be found on several blogs and Web sites, including humaneventsonline.com, which calls itself "the national conservative weekly." You can access further coverage, and that Web site, from www.sptimes.com/links.

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