Free Speech, Islamophobia & The Murder of Innocents
About a week ago, the struggle over free speech landed in my email inbox.
I’m mindful of, and disturbed by the steady stream of articles I see decrying the decline of free speech on and around U.S. universities. Many of these come from rightwing pundits; but others come from worried but otherwise progressive observers.
I’ve held back from joining the fray, mainly because it’s almost twenty years since I worked on a college campus, and it’s way too easy to succumb to hand-wringing fads and facile generalizations about “kids these days”; to moan about how academia is abandoning rational discourse, and its millennial occupants are all going to hell in a handbasket woven from organic fair trade dried kale.
Perhaps it’s so; but how would I know that? I live near some large campuses, but don’t hang out there.
Then a week or so ago, an advocacy group I’m part of was asked to sign on to a letter. The missive, written by Manzoor Cheema, for the Movement to End Racism and Islamophobia, called for a lecture series in Chapel Hill NC, to be shut down. The letter’s money quote was:
“we urge Extraordinary Ventures to say no to the voices of hatred and bigotry. We request Extraordinary Ventures to cancel Diana West’s upcoming speech and the future lecture series by ICON.”
At this point, for the record: “Extraordinary Ventures” is a local non-profit that mainly works with youth and adults who have autism; as part of their fundraising, they rent out a sizable community room.
ICON stands for “Issues Confronting Our Nation,” which is a very conservative association that sponsors a lecture series, which uses the Extraordinary Ventures room for the talks. ICON’s lineup of speakers is solidly, some would say rabidly rightwing: climate change deniers, dead-ender opponents of the Iran nuclear agreement, fans of Trumpian curbs on immigration — and denouncers of allegedly massive Islamic infiltration and terrorist-oriented subversion of American society, pushing for sharia and the whole nine yards.
The protest letter’s particular target was a lecture by Diana West, an author whose major work is American Betrayal, which according to reviewers (I haven’t read it) argues for a drastic reinterpretation of American diplomatic history since World War Two. West asserts that FDR, Eisenhower and other top officials over several decades were essentially tools of the Soviet Union.
I remember this argument, made by the ultra-right John Birch Society in its heyday. Numerous scholars, including some quite conservative, consider it, and West’s book, rubbish. Nevertheless, West uses this theme to insist that the U.S. government is once again being taken over by subversive, deadly aliens, in this case radical Muslims and their repressive, terrorist vanguard.
It was this “Commies then, Muslims now” trope that the letter I was sent wanted to shut down — along with the entire lecture series it was part of.
The basis for the letter’s demand was straightforward:
“Hate speech has real life consequences for marginalized communities. Muslims and immigrants in general have been demonized and dehumanized by the forces of hate. Laws and policies have have been introduced against them, including in North Carolina, as a result of concerted efforts by these forces. Diana West has contributed to the hysteria against Sharia law, which has led to anti-Sharia movement throughout the country, including in North Carolina. NC General Assembly members passed anti-Sharia law that was signed into law by Governor McCrory in 2013. There is an increased level of attacks against Muslims as a result of hate speech and institutional Islamophobia. Three Muslim students were murdered in execution style in Chapel Hill in early 2015, an incident that many believe was an anti-Muslim hate crime.”
Here I note one point of agreement: “hateful speech” does contribute to social hostility, and increases the odds of violence; that’s why it’s called “hate speech.”
But I part ways with the author as to the remedy, or at least the response. And here my view is that of a pretty old-fashioned First Amendment, ACLU-supporting liberal.
(The ACLU sets out their view in “Hate Speech on Campus”; and while the ICON lecture was not a campus event, it was held in the heart of Chapel Hill, the quintessential college town community in our region, and the letter was penned by a university researcher. By “the heart” I mean, of course, the venue’s location hard by the local Whole Foods store.)
ACLU: “Many universities, under pressure to respond to the concerns of those who are the objects of hate, have adopted codes or policies prohibiting speech that offends any group based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.
That’s the wrong response, well-meaning or not. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content. Speech codes adopted by government-financed state colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution. And the ACLU believes that all campuses should adhere to First Amendment principles because academic freedom is a bedrock of education in a free society.
How much we value the right of free speech is put to its severest test when the speaker is someone we disagree with most. Speech that deeply offends our morality or is hostile to our way of life warrants the same constitutional protection as other speech because the right of free speech is indivisible: When one of us is denied this right, all of us are denied. . . .”
I couldn’t have said it better, though I have one point to add: if we let self-appointed groups insist that certain words or subjects be banned from public spaces as “offensive,” we are encouraging the forces of totalitarianism in our society, and dabbling with a remedy that’s worse than the disease. I was raised in such a repressive religious atmosphere, and know whereof I speak. Furthermore, what’s right on campus should be right off-campus as well.
Yet are there no limits at all to free speech? Yes there are. Here I agree with the Supreme Court, in a 1969 decision that declared
“the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”
In the case of Diane West’s lecture, the difference would be between her arguing that infiltration by Islamic radicals will ruin the country, and a call to her hearers to gather weapons, attack the nearest Muslims, and summarily execute them as happened in the horrible, haunting triple murder the previous winter. In the latter case, I’d call 911 right away for serious help. [But I’ve seen no indication that West is ready to jeopardize her presumably lucrative career as a propagandist writer and lecturer by crossing that line.]
So what to do? Here I again defer to the ACLU:
“Where racist, sexist and homophobic speech is concerned, the ACLU believes that more speech — not less — is the best revenge.”
So vigorous peaceful protest is fine, as would be a counter-presentation. And I note that ICON itself says on its website that:
“[The] ICON Lecture Series is committed to free speech, diversity of thought and improving the balance and quality of the Triangle’s political conversation. . . . We welcome people of all political points of view at our events and invite them to participate enthusiastically in our question-and-answer sessions.”
I’d be willing to take them at their word and send some well-prepared, articulate dissenters into the program, to dismantle a racist/Islamophobic presentation with forcefully-argued facts and values.
So that’s what I said to the others in my group: I’d support a vigorous peaceful protest, but not a call to shut down the lecture and the series, unless either called for imminent violence.
Others said much the same thing, and we did not sign on to the letter.
In the event, West’s lecture was held as scheduled. A group of protesters gathered outside the building “with signs and chants” (the sponsor reported 15). There were no reports of arrests or violence, and life here in North Carolina goes on.
So does my encounter with this call to shut down free speech show that the campus and its environs are fatally infected with the virus of speech repression?
I can’t jump from one case as far as that conclusion. But the risk certainly seems to be there. Yet at the same time, the letter’s author is quite right that anti-Islamic agitation can have violent and even fatal consequences, as citizens of our community know to our sorrow. So the struggle against such agitation is real and ongoing; and debates over ways to engage it will likely be ongoing as well.
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