Free Speech Also Means Responding To Hate Speech

A short while ago, I received an e-mail requesting support for a speaker appearing at a forum in Oregon. Included was an op-ed which apparently appeared in the local newspaper which was essentially making the point that free speech was absolute. It was headlined “Freedom of Speech Threatened When Speakers Are Attacked.” The author was defending the appearance of Mark Weber, the director of the Institute for Historical Review, an organization whose primary goal is to “prove” that the Holocaust either never happened or was greatly exaggerated.

Needless to say, the request for support was refused. That the author of the op-ed mentioned above would conflate a holocaust denier like Weber with Desmond Tutu and Norman Finkelstein, however, also reflects the dangers of spurious accusations of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. Tutu has been accused of the former, Finkelstein of the latter. When such people, however deeply anyone disagrees with them, are painted with the same brush as someone like Weber, the parable of the boy who cried wolf is proven.

Muzzlewatch is, of course, dedicated to opening up debate and defending both the right and ability of individuals to speak from their conscience about Israel and the conflicts in the Middle East without fear of professional and personal attacks. That includes those who support current American and Israeli policies, and Muzzlewatch has defended such people in this space.

But the issue of free speech is taken to absurd lengths when one argues that hate speech must have a platform. That is very different from arguing, as I certainly would, that even the most hateful bigot has a right to his or her views and the right to be free from government restriction on the expression of those views. But that doesn’t mean that a public, private, educational or media institution must provide a platform for hate speech.

Indeed, the very premise the op-ed author uses to defend Weber’s appearance, that “free speech is threatened when speakers are attacked” is the height of absurdity. Public speakers are attacked all the time. In my own case, as someone who has been critical of Israeli and American policies as well as those of the Arab states, Iran and the various Palestinian factions, I have been attacked from all sides of this debate. I’m still speaking as freely as ever.

It’s hardly confined to the Israel-Palestine issue. Virtually any issue where there is political disagreement, from abortion to gay marriage to taxes to school prayer elicits personal attacks on proponents of one side or the other. There is nary a political official whose personal integrity has not been attacked. Personal attacks are routine in the business pages of the newspaper. Even the sports pages are full of them–in fact, in my spare time, I write a blog about baseball and have been called all sorts of names there, often worse than in response to my writings on issues obviously more weighty. There is still no shortage of people speaking their minds in columns, op-eds, letters to the editor and the global blogosphere.

The idea that we should not call a racist a racist or an anti-Semite an anti-Semite is absurd. If we are to oppose such hateful ideas, calling them out is an absolute necessity. At the same time, freedom comes with responsibility. When such charges are used not out of sincerity but out of political utility, we are all diminished, and such acts of cynicism and irresponsibility must be confronted. Indeed, this very episode illustrates the dangers of such acts: when one calls Desmond Tutu or Jimmy Carter an anti-Semite when he is obviously not, or Norman Finkelstein a Holocaust denier when he is obviously not, one opens the door for people who are either ignorant of what Mark Weber is, simply don’t find his hateful views problematic or even agree with him to argue for his being treated as a legitimate historian on a free speech basis.

In a far less offensive vein, JVP received a number of inquiries — polite ones, I hasten to add — questioning our stance on Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week, where we denounced the speakers and asked people to support our statement that their views amounted to hate speech. We were asked if we were not abandoning our commitment to free and open dialogue.

On the contrary, we were acting in the best spirit of free speech and open debate. We never contended that universities should not, if they so chose, offer Ann Coulter or Rick Santorum or David Horowitz a platform. We simply said that their views demanded a response.

We quite explicitly said that the Ann Coulters, David Horowitzes and Rick Santorums of the world have every right to express their views, and that it is the responsibility of those who view their words as hate speech to respond. That is what any freedom that we treasure means–freedom and the responsibility to act that goes along with it. Rights cannot be maintained unless they are accompanied with both accountability for our own acts and our taking responsibility for the society we are building through the actions and choices that our rights allow us to take.

The same holds true for an explicit anti-Semite like Weber. No one questions his right to speak. But when he does speak, he should be held accountable for his words and views. But no one has a responsibility to host him. He, like anyone else, should be judged on the merits of his argument, which, thankfully, are non-existent. Professionally, he should be judged on the value of his work which, equally thankfully is nil. That’s all we expect, and all we have ever asked with regard to ourselves or anyone involved in the debate on to situation in the Middle East, whatever their views.

For your information, I reprint the response I sent to the person who asked for our support.

Dear XXXXX,
Thank you for sending us your article. But the goal you are trying to reach is certainly not one we would support.
Free speech is a crucial principle, one we work very hard at JVP to protect. But free speech, like any other freedom is not absolute.

Would you criticize a campus for not wishing to give a forum to a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan? Most would agree that the African-American community would be within its rights and indeed would be responsible to try to prevent such a speaker.

Mark Weber and the Journal of Historical Review are Holocaust deniers and Jew-haters. This has nothing to do with a free and open debate on the subject of Israel, Palestine or the US policy regarding that region.

While we would simply ignore such a speaker and trust that his audience will have the good sense to recognize hate speech when they see it, there is a big difference between using specious charges of anti-Semitism based on criticism of Israel to try to shut down debate and objecting to a true hater of Jews being given a public forum.

The highest level where freedom of speech must be protected is the governmental one. Yet even there, we have, as a society, come to an agreement that yelling “Fire” in a crowded movie house is not protected. There are some limits.
In the non-governmental sphere, guidelines are much less well-defined. And, indeed, it is important for civil society in general and, on the issue of Israel-Palestine, for peace advocates in particular to err on the side of open discussion. And while I concur that a hatemonger like Weber, just like hatemongers on the other side like David Horowitz and Ann Coulter, have every right to speak in public, it is not the responsibility of any public venue like a university, much less a private one, to give them a forum. And I, and JVP are certainly not going to object to their inability to find one.

Comparing Weber and his hate message to Tutu and Finkelstein is simply misguided. I hope you will reconsider your stand on that comparison, because lumping these two men in with a preacher of hate and Holocaust denial undermines their claims and undermines the efforts to open a wider discussion and debate on Israel and American policy in the Middle East. Where Tutu and Finkelstein are smeared as anti-Semites, in Tutu’s case, and Holocaust deniers in Finkelstein’s, Weber really is both. Extending the advocacy from these two well-informed men who are advocating for real peace and justice to someone who is advocating Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism undermines the effort to get the words of people like Tutu and Finkelstein into the public discourse. And you don’t need to wait to hear Weber talk to determine this, any more than you need to hear Tutu or Finkelstein talk to determine that they are very different from Weber. Their bodies of work are there for examination. I hope you’ll look into them.

Thanks again for writing.

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