It isn’t free speech, stupid


A recent controversy at Yale erupted when the Episcopal chaplain of the university Bruce Shipman wrote a letter to the New York Times asserting that the “relationship between Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza and growing anti-Semitism in Europe and beyond.”  In response Rabbi Leah Cohen, Executive Director and Senior Jewish Chaplain, Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale wrote a verbose equivocation filled response.

Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale welcomes open dialogue and genuine civil discourse. We are committed to the pursuit of Jewish life at Yale and the personal identities of our students, including close and serious engagement with Israel and world Jewry. We are adamantly against any justifications of anti-Semitism and hatred of any kind. Individuals who perpetuate these ideas stand in the way of the thoughtful and open engagement that is emblematic of Slifka Center, the University Chaplain’s Office and Yale in general. Any individual or group who stands for or justifies hatred stands dramatically opposed to the mission of Slifka Center. At Yale, we engage through learning programs, speaker events and discussions groups with students, faculty and members of our community who support intelligent discourse.  On this campus, we draw upon the cherished principles of freedom of expression and our rich and deep relationships to promote respectful conversations that matter.

Note the key words here: “Dialogue; civil discourse; serious engagement; thoughtful and open engagement;engage; intelligent discourse; respectful conversations

And the big one: Cherished principles of freedom of expression

The interesting thing here is why does the author feel the need to bring up “free speech” as an issue here. She acts as if the mere disagreement with someone else’s comments requires that we confirm that the person has the “right” to “free speech” and she even seems to congratulate him for participating in these “cherished principles.”  The insinuation is that this is a “free speech issue” as if the chaplain was in danger of losing his right to free speech or his speech was being curtailed.

This is the classic misdirection, whereby a racist or offensive comment, is turned into a “free speech” debate and therefore everyone must congratulate the offensive person on their “rights” and make it clear that we value their “cherished” comments.

Consider another example:

Salman Masalha's racist article

Salman Masalha’s racist article

Israeli writer, often considered “brilliant” and “amazing” by other media personalities, penned a racist diatribe against Israel’s security, in which he took it to task for being racist.  He judged a security guard for his skin color.

Racism always a "free speech" issue

Racism always a “free speech” issue

When the newspaper he writes for, Haaretz, was challenged about the article the reply was about “his right” to write a racist column.  This is a classic misdirection and diversion, so that the debate becomes about his “right.”

We see this all the time recently.  Every person, no matter how offensive and racist they are, especially if they are on the “left”, is celebrated for their “free speech” and participating in “cherished principles of free expression.”

For instance, the two-step often works like this.

Person A: I can’t stand that so-and-so says France is a Nazi-like country

Person B: One of the great things about a free democratic society is that we must value the rights of an academic to participate in critique.

This is how the discussion is always moved, when there was no insinuation in the first place that the person being questioned for their comments should not be permitted to say them.  The chaplain at Yale surely has the right to say that anti-semitism is caused by Israel’s actions.  But he doesn’t have the right to be a chaplain at Yale.  Free speech and “cherished values of freedom of expression” says nothing about people’s rights to be racist in every forum.

Alexander Yacobson talks about free speech

Alexander Yacobson talks about free speech

For instance Alexander Yacobson, a Tel Aviv University Professor pulls the classic bait and switch technique in a recent article.  Why does he need to stress that the opinions he is talking about are “in terms of free speech…legitimate.”  Notice how the ideas being “legitimate” and “free speech” are intimately intwined without them needing to be.  An idea can be totally illegitimate and to say so is not a violation of free speech.  If a person says that “African-Americans are no better than apes”, that racist comment can be condemned as unacceptable without the need to mention that “in terms of free speech it is legitimate” and “we value cherished principles.”  Condemning racism doesn’t always need the proviso that “it is his right.”

It is a person’s right to swear and curse but that doesn’t mean every business must hire them.  It is a person’s right to be a racist often, but that doesn’t mean they should have a column in a newspaper.

Let’s look back at an even worse example of this.  Columbia University’s invitation to Holocaust denying, hate preaching Iranian-President Mahmud Ahmadinjed.

University President Lee Bollinger used the free speech excuse:

Bollinger's blindness

Bollinger’s blindness

Why did freedom of speech get tied up with it being the “right thing to do” to have a racist homophobe have a stage of lauded at a US university?  Why was it “required by existing norms of free speech, the American university and Columbia itself.”

When you go and read any constitution or foundational document or even university codes of conduct about free expression and free speech; it doesn’t say “the university is required to invite every racist and provide them a public forum.”  The US Constitution or Israel’s basic laws don’t say “newspapers will print columnists with racist views” and Yale’s Episcopal church or its Jewish Life center doesn’t say “every anti-semite will be provided with a job.”  Racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia; or just plane hostile comments about women; none of them have anything to do with free speech when it comes to having a job or public platform.

Free speech was intended to protect people from government prosecution, not private decisions of organizations, universities or institutions and businesses. “Cherished values” of free speech pertain to the idea of an open democratic society.  But that doesn’t mean the KKK’s hate is a “cherished value.”

By misdirecting everything into a “free speech” category and saying “I don’t agree with my colleagues views, but I will defend his right to say it”, one is changing the debate into a “free speech” straw man that was never attacked.

A straw man

A straw man

Why is the knee-jerk reaction to turn everything into a “free speech” issue?  It is primarily the fear of confronting the substance of the arguments themselves.  In the case above we see a rabbi who is afraid to unreservedly condemn anti-semitism.  We see a university president afraid to unreservedly condemn an Iranian dictator.  We see a writer afraid to condemn a colleague.  In each case a “principle” is held up that was never in question.

The only time “free speech” and “cherished values” and “beauty of a free society” should enter a debate is when people are actually being investigated for an issue that one thinks involves free speech.  For instance when people are fined for hate speech on Twitter.  Or when a politician, such as Hanin Zuabi in Israel, is investigated for saying comments that others were not investigated for.

Calling for a columnist to be fired or an episcopal chaplain does not violate their free speech.  It shows that racism does not give someone a right to a job.  It correctly punishes people for their actions and forces them to be accountable for them.  Denying an Iranian President a forum at an institution of higher learning doesn’t infringe his “rights”; he didn’t have a “right” to appear there in the first place.  There is no “requirement” that he be given a forum.

It isn’t about free speech, stupid.









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