By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Every once in a while someone makes the pithy aphorism, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it,” a quote variously attributed to Evelyn Beatrice Hall, Oscar Wilde or Voltaire.
It’s one of those quotes that ends up in debates about “free speech.” Everyone who talks about “free speech” always takes on a self-righteousness. If you are against “free speech,” you are of course bad, censoring the views of others, denying them “freedom of expression,” and “academic freedom” or various other “freedoms.” The thing is, the more you listen to stories about “free speech,” the more you should realize, “no, I won’t defend to the death your right to say it,” and “I don’t think it’s actually free speech.”
Most people stuck in the circular argument of “you’re against free speech,” think they have to defend the suppressing of the speech. But what they should be asking is whether the information they are being presented with has anything to do with free speech. Here are a few examples.
When David Irving sued Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt for libel he claimed that they had slandered him as a “Holocaust denier,” he claimed in his closing arguments that he was being deprived of free speech. “The fact remains that this is what these enemies of free speech have tried for 30 years to do — by hook or by crook, to ruin me, and to destroy my hard won legitimacy as one of the world’s most original and incorruptible writers on the Third Reich and its history.” He claimed that there were “extremist bodies dedicated to destroying my right to free speech,” and that in various places audiences had been unable to hear him and publishers had not published him. “They staged street demonstrations in Manhattan. They organized a walkout by St. Martin’s Press staff.” Irving often presented himself as a victim of those persecuting “free speech.”
Recall that it was Irving who was suing Penguin Books, not the other way around. How was his “free speech” being affected. He was publishing and speaking and encouraging doubt about the Holocaust. Yet the claim was that anyone who protested him, or even accused him of denying the Holocaust were “destroying my right to free speech.”
This is precisely an example of how the “free speech” story gets turned around. The person who actually enjoys free speech, who travels the world to propagate offensive ideas, presents themselves as a victim and then seeks to silence critique by suing those who critique them. Suddenly a protest becoming “enemies of free speech” or anyone who says to a publisher “don’t publish him” is an “enemy of free speech.”
This turns the “right to free speech” into the “right to be publish” and the “right to be heard.” It switches around free speech, so that the public actually is no longer permitted to have a right to be free from a person’s speech. You must publish the person, or you “deny free speech” and no one may protest, lest they “silence free speech.” In this way “free speech” becomes “you have to hear this person speak or you deny him his right.” But there is no right to be published. There is no right to give a speech and have no one walk our, no one protest. Why does one person with offensive views have a right to be published more than all the other billions of people in the world. How did a right to free speech, which might mean at its most simplest, talking to your friends or handing out fliers or speaking on a street corner, because the right to force your speech on publishers and the public?
Another case occurs when “free speech” becomes a “right to free speech within an organization,” in a sense a right to force your views on an organization and a right to be funded by that organization. This dispute happened at Hillel in the United States, a campus Jewish organization. Beginning in 2013 a dispute raged within Hillel as to how to handle anti-Israel views among some local chapters or members of chapters. At Swarthmore the Hillel disassociated itself and began calling itself Open Hillel. Hillel CEO Eric Fingerhut said ““Hillel will not, however, give a platform to groups or individuals to attack the Jewish people, Jewish values or the Jewish state’s right to exist.” However Joel Beinin, a Professor at Stanford, claimed that the Hillel restrictions were “an impingement on free speech and academic freedom. It’s not what a university is for, to tell people what they can and can’t talk about.”
Hillel is a private organization, not a government body and not a public space. So how was it have standards for what its local chapters might do or not do, part of suppressing “free speech.” The insinuation was that the organization should be forced to keep paying for and supporting groups within its umbrella expressing views that were manifestly against those of the organization’s views. That’s not “suppressing free speech,” that’s one organization having a standard and asking those who don’t like the standard to leave and create a different organization. Yet under the Beinin view it’s not about “free speech” its about a right to be part of Hillel and a right to express whatever ideas one wants within that framework.
In 2007 Columbia University hosted Iranian leader Mahmud Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier and hate preachers, at the campus. Lee Bollinger, president of the University, gave an introduction in which he claimed the Ahmadinejad hate-fest, was part of free speech. It’s worth to read his claims in full:
“The scope of free speech in academic freedom should itself always be open to further debate. As one of the more famous quotations about free speech goes, it is an experiment as all life is an experiment. I want to say, however, as forcefully as I can that this is the right thing to do, and indeed it is required by the existing norms of free speech, the American university and Columbia itself. In the moment, the arguments for free speech will never seem to match the power of the arguments against, but what we must remember is that this is precisely because free speech asks us to exercise extraordinary self-restraint against the very natural but often counterproductive impulses that lead us to retreat from engagement with ideas we dislike and fear. In this lies the genius of the American idea of free speech.”
Under the Bollinger view of free speech, every dictator or every hate preacher has a “right” to speak at a large forum on a college campus. Even a private college may not regulate what speeches are given. He goes beyond that, asserting that if you don’t think an Iranian homophobe and Holocaust denier should be invited to speak on your campus you are “against” free speech. He asserts that this concept of free speech is “American” and that -people must accept ideas they “dislike and fear.”
But that’s NOT what the US Bill of Rights says. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The right to free speech in America doesn’t say every Iranian hangman has a “right” to speak at Columbia. It says the government should not prohibit what people say or for them to assemble and discuss things.
Why couldn’t Ahmadinejad rent a conference room somewhere and give his speech? Why does a University have to provide a platform and forum for his views? Iran restricts free speech and imprisons people for singing and dancing. So why does the Iranian leader get the red carpet at a US university? Why is it if you oppose your university being used as a platform and stamp of approval to legitimize an Iranian regime extremist, that you “oppose” free speech. The Bollinger view of free speech is that people should be forced to listen to Iranian fascists, not be free from listening to them. Ahmadinejad has ample resources to speak in his own state-run media, and to rent a place somewhere to speak. That’s free speech. This idea that everyone has to listen to hate speech, and if they don’t want to, they are denying the right of others to speak, presents free speech as a kind of dictatorial fascism, whereby you all have to listen to the speech. But that’s not what free speech is about. It’s not about being forced to listen to speech. People are as free from listening to speech, as people are free to speak. So someone may have a right to blabber on about how much they love Hitler on a sidewalk, but a person also has a right to protest them and shout at them or walk away. The person doesn’t have a right to give a pro-Hitler speech that everyone has to listen to in silence, because we must be exposed to ideas we “dislike or fear.” No, it doesn’t say in the Bill of Rights “you must listen to ideas you fear and dislike.”
Another aspect of free speech that is often misunderstood is the “right” to receive funding from the government for something offensive. In the 1990s New York Mayor Rudy Guliani attempted to cut off funding for the Brooklyn Museum of Art because of “sick, disgusting” art work. A painting of the Virgin Mary was displayed with elephant dung and porn. A federal judge disagreed; “There is no federal constitutional issue more grave than the effort by government officials to censor works of expression and to threaten the vitality of a major cultural institution, as punishment for failing to abide by governmental demands for orthodoxy.”
In this case the public was presented with yet another misunderstanding of free speech. Of course a painter has the right to smear feces on something holy and take the painting around to present it. A museum may make a decision to include that work of “art.” But there is no “right to public funding” for the museum. By forcing the public to fund art, it is not “free speech,” but “force you to pay for free speech.” How was the government “censoring” the work of expression by cutting off funding? The art work could still be displayed, the museum could raise private funds for it, or the artist could display his work somewhere else. It wasn’t being “censored.” Consider the same museum deciding to display a copy of a Muslim holy book in the same circumstances? If a the government cut off funding for the museum, it’s not censoring the “art,” it’s saying that this is not a good use of public money. “Free speech,” is not a “right to public funding.” The right to free speech doesn’t say “the government shall pay for offensive works of art,” it says the government will not restrict speech. But it’s not a restriction to stop paying for something the government decided to pay for at one point. The artist whose work is displayed received a “privilege,” not a “right” to display his or her work with public funding, taking away that funding returns the artist to their natural place as a citizen competing in the public sphere for their speech like everyone else.
Yet the US government does know how to critique art when it wants to. In 2012 after the attack on US embassies in Cairo and Banghazi the US State Department condemned a privately made Youtube video in the US they blamed for inciting the attacks: “The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.” So in one case the US government said it does deplore any denigration of religion, but in another a court says that it is “free speech” to force a city to pay for a museum to exhibit art with feces on the Virgin Mary?
It should all come back to funding. By providing funding in the first place to one artist and not another the government is privileging one type of speech over another, just as Columbia privileged the speech of Ahmadinejad over those of Iranian dissidents. By taking away the venue or platform of a university campus or museum wall, it is not censoring, it is returning something to equality. One speech is not above another. Just like David Irving doesn’t have a right to force his views on others without people protesting.
There is a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of free speech which seeks continually to expand free speech into a “right to force your speech on others,” and a “right to receive public funding for your speech” and a “right to be published” and a “right for dictators to speak on campus.” In Israel there was a recent case of a student who made posters showing a rope and the Prime Minister’s face. When it was condemned as “incitement,” the students claimed free speech and made a new poster of a nude prime minister with a rope around his member. But is this “free speech.” Does a student have a right to show a photo of the dean of faculty with a rope around his neck? Can the student circulate a photo of a nude professor on campus? Suddenly we may find “free speech” no longer applies when it is directed at faculty or heads of universities. Because there actually is no “right” to free speech on campus to put up artwork, to circulate nude photos.
We are constantly told we must be forced to hear speech we don’t like. “Uncomfortable ideas,” they say. Often pro-Israel speakers on campus are subjected to protests and the pro-Israel response is to claim that their “free speech” rights are violated. This was the case at UC Irvine and University College London. Sir Eric Pickles, responding to the UCL incident, “the apparent anti-Semitism lurking behind some hard-line anti-Israel ‘activists’ is a terrible indictment of the intolerance of some modern students. Free speech must be guaranteed and protected for all”.
But was “free speech” being assaulted because protesters gathered? When people heckle a speaker are they violating free speech? Isn’t an essential aspect of free speech the fact that both sides have free speech. Free speech isn’t the “right not to be interrupted,” it is the right for you to speak and to be met with other speech. Why doesn’t the heckler have free speech or the protester? Once again we see how “free speech” actually becomes the right to speak at a certain place unimpeded and force your speech on others. But there is no “right” to speak at UC Irvine or UCL. Do students have to be “challenged” with ideas they find “offensive”? No. They have a right to protest those views. They have a right also to protest pro-Israel views. The pro-Israel speaker has a right to his or her speech and so does the anti-Israel protester. Of course the pro-Israel speaker and their organization can rent a conference room, like Ahmadinejad can, or host a gathering at a private home, just like the Virgin Mary artist can, and speak all they want. But there is no “right” to not be interrupted. Otherwise “free speech” becomes a “right to a venue” and a right to speak without others speaking, which is actually the denial of free speech to others.
Time and again we see how free speech is manipulated in order to force speech onto others, to force it into venues and then force it to be funded.
In those cases, the aphorism, “I will defend your right,” should not apply. We should not defend the “right” to speak on campus by Iranian extremists, Holocaust deniers, or the “right” to be published or the “right” to public funding. Instead one should use free speech to oppose that speech. And no, criticism of someone’s views, is not “opposing free speech,” it is exercise our to free speech as well.