Hate speech vs. free speech
The law, however, draws a distinction, attenuated though the distinction may be, between free speech and hate speech, or, if you wish, between vilification and the protections afforded the vilifier by the First Amendment. What do we do, in other words, when there are individuals in our community who are so demented, mean-spirited or racist that they are wily enough to use one of the country’s most cherished freedoms in order to insult, slander and mock others in pursuit of promoting a reprehensible cause like Islamophobia in America?
Clearly, the answer is self-evident: We must do everything to deter them from successfully leveraging the First Amendment privileges as a defense of their right to incite others to violence.
You probably had not heard of a disturbed woman — and this columnist is not the first political commentator to identify her as such — called Pamela Geller, who heads a group called Stop the Islamization of America, that is, till late last week, after she sponsored an incendiary anti-Muslim event in Garland, Texas, an event that she effectively wished would conclude in an act of violence. Well, her wish was granted. Two Muslim men, who attacked the venue where the event was held, were slain and a security officer was slightly injured, all of which attracted the kind of anti-Muslim attention that this disturbed woman had hoped for.
Of course, the event in Garland (a contest involving blasphemous caricatures that hardly qualifies as a serious effort at conducting a debate about Islam) had less to do with freedom of expression and more to do with Geller’s intention to promote a debate about the alleged evils of the Muslim community in America. She wanted to hype fear, not stimulate discussion. Who on earth is this 57-year-old Jewish housewife from Long Island? The Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit, national advocacy organization specializing in civil rights and in tracking hate groups, described her as “the anti-Muslim movement’s most visible and flamboyant figurehead, relentlessly shrill and coarse in her broad-brush denunciations of Islam.” She is a woman whose denunciations of Islam embody the notion of hate speech masquerading as free speech.
And if you think that hate speech is not dangerous, then recall Anders Breivik, the Norwegian far-right terrorist who, in July 2011, killed eight people by setting off a van bomb in Oslo, then shot and killed 69 participants of a Workers’ Youth League summer camp, and to whom Geller was a hero, citing her writings in his rambling manifesto as having inspired his act. Geller, for her part, justified the assault, which included 30 children among the victims, as one against a camp that had more “Middle Eastern or mixed” races than “pure Norwegians.”
Not just dangerous but hatemongering!
In 2010, for example, she began a campaign against the proposed Islamic Community Center and Mosque in Manhattan. Soon after that, she bought ad space on public transportation in New York, Washington and San Francisco that proclaimed: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” Two years later, she bought space at 39 New York subway stations for a new ad campaign that showed the burning of the World Trade Center with an accompanying quote from the Qur’an. And in 2014, Geller’s group paid $100,000 for ads linking Islam to Hitler.
No wonder the editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, along with two other colleagues, who were in New York last week to attend a PEN American Center literary gala, was both appalled and scandalized at Geller’s claim that the racist event she had sponsored in Texas was held “in honor” of the French publication’s “right to free speech.” And in 2013, recognizing that free speech is not a license to incitement, the British government, which designated Stop the Islamization of America as a hate group, barred Geller from entry into the UK, presciently claiming that her statements foster hatred that “might lead to inter-community violence.”
This small-time, ageing, mentally disturbed political blogger and provocateur, with plenty of pathological obsessions that she needs to have unloaded on her shrink, but has not, has been able to do all that? Looks like it.
America’s entrenched view of the protections guaranteed in the First Amendment is that the right of Americans to unfettered free speech allows few exceptions to the rule, reflecting the constitution’s dedication to an open and free exchange of ideas. The conventional wisdom is that those ideas that are abhorrent to a free society will ultimately wither and be left by the wayside when aired, but “fester when suppressed.” Moreover, who is to determine which ideas are offensive and which are progressive?
In recent years there has been growing support, as The Social Science Research Network suggested, for an “exception to the rule” aimed at dealing with “the destructive attack on a target group of people by stimulating hatred or fear in others, i.e. racial defamation.” And, yes, is it naive to say that ugly ideas will wither in time? Pamela Geller is still riding high after all these years.
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