Wednesday, January 14, 2015


Free Speech Confusions


The murder of French journalists that worked on the magazine Charlie Hebdo is totally unacceptable.
Public reactions, as reported in the media, seem perplexed in the face of such violent anger at cartoonists lampooning Islam and Muslims. But why is such anger so difficult to understand? Suppose the targets were Jews, African-Americans, or women victims of rape? Suppose the targets were Americans? What would public opinion in the US be if Charlie Hebdo had published cartoons about 9/11 or about the Marathon Bombing in Boston?
Surely, in that case, our anger would also been violent. But in our Western context killing people who do not imminently threaten your life is clearly wrong whether you are offended by what they say, about how they conduct themselves, or what they stand for. It is also against the law. ( Here we begin thinking about Michael Brown in Ferguson or Eric Garner. The parallels with the present case are thought provoking.)
Some public reactions reminded us that it is good to laugh, even at sacred cows. But what if the sacred cow is something that moves you deeply, that you treat with the utmost respect, that is as close to your heart as anything?
A lot of people talk as if these murders had to do with free speech. The First Amendment has to do with efforts on the part of the government to squelch critical opinions. We regard that as illegal. But we regard it as illegal only under carefully limited conditions. You may not, under penalty of the law, shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater where there is no fire.
In recent years we have adopted laws against “hate speech,” against speech that incites to violence, against speech that humiliates and insults persons for being women, Black, disabled, Native American.
But, if you think about this for a moment, you can see how difficult these matters are. On the one hand, we want to be able to utter opinions even if they are unpopular, even if they offend powerful persons.
Consider the case of Steven Salaita, appointed last summer to a teaching job at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champain. In the last moment, Salaita was informed that the Chancellor would not submit this appointment to the Board of Trustees as bureaucratic rules demanded. The reason: Prof. Salaita had tweeted intemperately during the latest attack on Gaza by the Israelis. Since the leadership of the University of Illinois disapproved of these tweets, the job offer to Prof. Salaita was withdrawn.
Most people—unless they were fanatic Zionists—would react with outrage to this case because we believe that citizens should be able to express their political opinions even if the opinion or the passion with which the opinion was expressed offends others. We should all be able to say what we believe, as long as doing so does not incite to violence or produce imminent harm in some other, serious way. We should not be punished with unemployment for our political views.
But now think of Rep. Steve Scalise, of Louisiana, who in 2002 addressed a meeting of a group associated with the KKK. A number of people have recently criticized him for this. He has apologized, but the Congressional Black Caucus, among other groups, is not satisfied with that. Giving a speech to a white supremacist group that has, for a very long time harassed, including lynched, African-Americans certainly gives the appearance of taking sides with the white supremacists against Black citizens. An elected Congressional Representative should represent all voters in his district, not only the supremacist whites.
Here the inclination is obviously to censor a political stand taken by a politician. They too have the right to express their opinions freely but, on the other hand, since they are elected to represent all voters in their district we expect them to use good judgment in choosing their associates, including what groups to address.
Considering these two cases, side by side, shows very clearly how fraught with controversy and uncertainty free speech issues are. We want speech about politics, religion, matters sexual to be protected. But we also want everyone to be thoughtful and restrained in using those rights. While abuse of free speech rights does not license killing anyone, of course, Americans have always been quite willing to persecute and prosecute people whose political opinions they regarded as potentially harmful to the survival of our republic.
In 1947, a number of screenwriters refused to testify before the House Un-American Affairs Committee trying to find out about Communist influence in Hollywood. One of them, Dalton Trumbo, who authored several Oscar-winning films, lost his job in Hollywood. His political position was punished by taking his job away. During those years, that appeared perfectly acceptable because the country was in the grip of a hysterical fear of Communists and “subversives.” Ten years or so later, firing Trumbo seemed to many liberals an abuse of free speech rights and Trumbo was reinstated.
Questions of free speech are complicated and in many cases, most of us have difficulties deciding whether a certain speech was justified or should be suppressed. Our assessment often depends on the affiliations of the person making a judgment as well as, as Trumbo's experiences show, on the most powerful public opinion of the moment.
But it, of course, also depends on who the target of political speech is. Charlie Hebdo made fun of “muslims.” But there are no muslims-in-general. In France where they constitute about 5 – 6% of the population and a sizable number of them are French citizens, they tend to be poor, unemployed and uneducated at much higher rates than white French citizens. They are, in other words, a vulnerable group.
One would have thought that they deserve some extra protection against being publicly ridiculed. They deserve protections even if groups of “radical” Islamists commit murder in their name.