Abuses of free speech
An important aspect of our political culture is the protection of speech. We are justly proud of those institutions and practices, even though they involve us in much conflict and controversy and there are many cases where speech is, in fact, not protected. Free speech allows of many different interpretations and in any given situation the interpretation held by the more powerful party wins out.
A recent example is a body of complaints by faculty and students in universities who claim to have been harassed on social media and elsewhere, and to have been subject to very close and quite illegal supervision by university administrations. The complainants are all supporters of the Palestinians, many of them animated by horror over the Israeli attacks on Gaza in 2014. Most of them are members of an organization called "Students For Justice in Palestine (SJP)" who, among other things, support the boycott of Israel, of Israeli products, and of Israeli universities (BDS). The purpose of the boycott is to pressure the Israeli government to come to some kind of fair accommodation with the Palestinians.
Members of SJP have a long list of grievances. An SJP report states:
“University officials routinely erect administrative obstacles or abruptly alter school policies so as to hamper student organizing for Palestinian rights. These measures include creating impediments to reserving rooms and forcing students to obtain advance approval for events, pay security fees, and attend mandated meetings with administrators. Though seemingly neutral, these policies sometimes target and frequently disproportionately burden speech in favor of Palestinian rights. For example, in 2014, administrators at The City University of New York’s (CUNY) College of Staten Island repeatedly called members of Students for Justice in Palestine and their faculty advisor into meetings to question them about events and social media postings, urged the group to hold events alongside Israel advocacy groups, and instructed members to submit promotional flyers for official authorization.”
The bitterness and acrimony of this conflict reflects the bitter intensity of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Many human lives are endangered. People on both sides die almost daily. American supporters of Palestinians as well as of Israelis reflect the intensity of that conflict in their intransigence.
But here, once again, protecting the free speech of one-side violates the free-speech rights on the other side. The groups supporting Israel want the supporters of the Palestinians to be silenced. They don't acknowledge the free-speech rights of SJP on the grounds that SJ P is a terrorist organization.
But that only raises another problem in free-speech controversies. Frequently each side wants to deny free speech to the other on the grounds that the other’s speech serves criminal purposes and is therefore not protected by the First Amendment.
Granting that we would not regard the recruitment efforts of ISIS as speech protected under the First Amendment, the big question facing the supporters of Israel is: who determines whether SJP is a terrorist organization and whether their speech is in the service of the terrorist activity. It surely cannot be acceptable that one party may be silenced on the merest say-so of their opponents that they are terrorists.
Striking in this and similar cases is that one or both parties are using free-speech protections not in order to protect their own speech or that of their opponents. Supporters of Israel allege that members of JPS are not entitled to free speech because of their terrorist connections. Rules regulating free speech are (mis)used to silence opponents. One or both parties are actually indifferent to free-speech rights and treat them only as a weapon in their war against their opponents.
I consider such a suppression of opponents’ speech a clear violation of First Amendment rights and their spirit. These rights and protections of speech are intended to clear the space for free and mutually respectful conversations about very difficult political disagreements. They are not intended as a weapon to barricade that space of disagreement by silencing the opposition.
Authorities in universities or at various levels of government should distance themselves from any organization that uses free-speech rights in order to silence others. They should make very clear that such campaigns are violating the spirit of the First Amendment and are clearly contemptuous of our American attempt to maintain a free society. Any support for such campaigns in the name of free-speech is hypocritical.
Sometimes university administrations demand that the events of one party to such a conflict be open to participation by the members of the opposing group. Supporters of Palestinians are admonished to invite Israel supporters to their public forums. Such a move is laudable if, at the same time, some ground-rules for the participation are laid down and agreed to before the event. It is irresponsible for administrators to demand participation of hostile groups and then turn their back on the predictable mayhem that ensues. Administrators must be serious about encouraging and promoting respectful discussions. They must promote meetings, provide facilitators and mediators and whatever resources there are for replacing shouting matches and almost violent confrontations with intelligent conversation.
Free-speech rights are about having useful, mutually respectful, reasonable conversations even in situations of great emotion, of fear, of anger. Attempts to use free-speech rights as weapons against one's opponents should be roundly condemned by everybody. Defenders of free-speech rights must always be focused on the goal of useful conversations. That goal must be pursued with all the resources at our disposal.