A Pox on Both Your Houses – Suppressing Speech is Not the Same as Expressing Speech

The New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority recently came under fire for allowing advertisements on the New York subways that say, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

Goebbels would be proud

The MTA initially refused to run the ad, claiming that it was “demeaning.” However, in July a Federal Judge schooled the MTA on the meaning of the First Amendment. (Order) The MTA, a government authority, does not get to pick and chose which messages it wants to accept.

With the MTA having no choice in the matter, Pamela Geller was free to purchase $6,000 worth of subway ads for a month. Naturally, I have some problems with the ad. First off, I dispute any notion that the Israelis are any more “civilized” than the Muslims. If I had my choice, I would give both groups 30 days to vacate Israel/Palestine and then saturate the land with “dirty bombs” so that nobody could live there for 10,000 years. Maybe after the two groups of assholes have that much time to cool off, they’ll figure out how to share.

The ad is certainly racist, and that’s the point. Geller is no better than Fred Phelps. Nevertheless, the cure for bad speech is more speech. Geller and Phelps will, hopefully, one day inhabit the same dungeon in hell. But, until then, we must pay the cost of living in a free society by tolerating both of their speech.

And that’s where we run into some problems.

Mona Eltahawy, an Arab-American journalist, has reasonable disagreements with an ad which calls her people “savages.” The ad is bigoted. The ad is despicable. Pamela Geller deserves to bo have a cactus shoved up her ass followed by a hive of African bees followed by another cactus. Her message is disgusting and, at the risk of invoking Godwin’s law, it smacks to me of 1940s era Nazi propaganda against the Jews.

And how does this differ from Geller’s ad?
“All propaganda has to be popular and has to adapt its spiritual level to the perception of the least intelligent of those towards whom it intends to direct itself.”-Adolf Hitler

Ms. Eltahawy decided to protest the ad by spray-painting it. And then, a woman by the name of Pamela Hall, who apparently works for Pamela Geller, decided to stand in between the ad and Ms. Eltahawy’s spray paint. At that point, I would like to say that hilarity ensued, but more to the point, stupidity ensued. Eltahawy expresses her stupidity by claiming that spray painting over the ad was her way of expressing her First Amendment rights. Ms. Hall then seemed to think it was perfectly okay to escalate the situation into a physical altercation. Finally, the police came and arrested Ms. Eltahawy for criminal mischief. They did not arrest Ms. Hall for physically assaulting Ms. Eltahawy. Let’s face it, this is happening in New York City and in a fight between an Arab and an Israel supporter, any judgment calls are going to go against the Arab – with or without instant replay.

It seems that the Arab-Israeli conflict can count among its casualties reason and rationality when it comes to expressing free speech theories. This story reminds me of eleven students arrested in February of 2010. In that incident, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, was giving a speech at UC Irvine and some Palestinian students decided to express themselves at the same time. Outrage ensued on both sides of the divide, especially when the Palestinian students were dragged away and criminally charged for their conduct. They, like Ms. Eltahawy, claimed that they were simply exercising their First Amendment rights. I did find them being criminally charged to be awfully heavy handed and I’m quite certain, had the tables been reversed and a Palestinian speaker was being shouted down by Israeli students, nobody would have been prosecuted. Nevertheless, while I may empathize with the Palestinian’s view on their home being colonized, and while I believe that Ms. Eltahawy’s point about Ms. Geller’s ad is well-taken, I do not believe that shouting down your adversary or covering up their message is a defensible act. The First Amendment does not protect your efforts to silence a fellow citizen’s speech.

This happens frequently when one party does not like the other party’s message: stacks of newspapers go missing, speakers get shouted down, and posters get spray-painted. However, if anybody thinks that is the First Amendment in action, they need a remedial class in the subject.

I don’t believe that, strictly speaking, that vandalism of the poster should be completely prohibited. In San Francisco, some people were defacing the posters with bumper stickers that countered the message, while leaving the message intact. This still might be considered vandalism, but as a free speech issue, I find it far less objectionable. Similarly, had the Palestinian students simply stood up during the Israeli FM’s presentation, holding signs or wearing t-shirts critical of the Israeli government, I could find little to object to, even if it was slightly disruptive. I find it inexcusable when one side of a debate thinks that shouting the other down is the answer to the speech that they do not like.

The First Amendment it is not only there for the speaker — it is there for the listener too. I want a robust First Amendment not just because I want the ability to say anything I want to say, but also because I want to hear what everybody else has to say. I want to hear it even if it’s stupid. I want to hear it even if I find it objectionable. My beliefs are strong enough that they can stand firmly in opposition to those that I may find abhorrent. I don’t need to shut the other guy up by playing dirty pool. I don’t want to do that. I do want to shut the other guy up, but I want to shut him up by destroying his arguments. I want to shut him by showing everyone how stupid he is. I want to shut up Ms. Geller. But I want to shut her up by visiting the market place of ideas and utterly rejecting anything that she may have to sell. I want to convince other shoppers in the market place to walk away, saying, “Try selling batshit crazy bigotry some place else; we’re all stocked up here.” I would like to see Ms. Geller’s views wiped from the face of the earth. But they must be wiped from the face of the earth with reason and with wide-open and robust debate, not with a can of spray paint in some fool’s hand.

18 Responses to A Pox on Both Your Houses – Suppressing Speech is Not the Same as Expressing Speech

  1. writerdood says:

    I’m totally with you. Except for the marketplace thing. It’s one word. Sorry. Hate to be a grammar Nazi, particularly when mine ain’t so good neither, but when I read it, something inside me said that there was something wrong. So I checked.

    But on the other stuff, I totally agree. Free speech is free speech. Letting someone else decide what’s free speech is not free speech. Start down that road, and the next thing you know we’ll have thought police roaming around. I don’t agree with the ad either, but it’s her right to run it. The other side is free to do the same.

  2. [...] I like Randazza’s article about free speech and what a government run metro service can decline or decide to accept. I might take issue with his characterization of the groups in conflict; after all I can criticize [...]

  3. ShelbyC says:

    “Ms. Hall then seemed to think it was perfectly okay to escalate the situation into a physical altercation.”

    Looked like justifiable force to me, both in self defense and in defense of property.

  4. Tom H says:

    Not to split hairs, but _does_ the poster actually insult Ms. Eltahawy’s people? It seems perfectly reasonable to infer that only those engaging in jihad are accused of being savages. One might legitimately respond that “everyone knows” who is _really_ meant, but as far as what the sign actually says, only “savages” and “jihad” are named. Geller’s poster … whatever one may think of the sentiment expressed .. differs from Nazi antisemitism in that one may engage in, or cease from engaging in “jihad” at any time. As far as I am aware, it is not an inherent characteristic of any people.

    Of course, if Ms. Eltahawy embraces “jihad” (and yes, I know that the Arabic word does not mean “terrorism”) then game on. But only in the sense of differing political opinions.

    • chazl says:

      “_does_ the poster actually insult Ms. Eltahawy’s people”

      I’ve seen this phenomenon a lot in online political arguments. I’ve said things like “If you’re a redhead who likes sardines, be sure to brush your teeth before kissing your lover,” only to have redheads who do *not* like sardines get upset because I’m telling them they have fish breath. No, I’m not. If you’re a redhead who does not eat sardines, the complaint is not directed toward you.

      If you’re a redhead opposed to fish breath, you should be encouraging your fellow redheads to use toothbrushes, not taking offense that a non-redhead has noticed it.

    • MikeZ says:

      I would say it is still offensive. I think you are correct though in the statement “defeat jihad”, is not offensive as that alone would be directed at extremists.

      However when you couple that message with “Support Israel” the ad has now clearly taken a side. So it certainly seems implied that if you don’t support Israel, you are or are supporting the terrorists.

  5. Jack B. says:

    I made the mistake of reading the comments at an article about this on Joe. My God.. Jesus Fucking Christ, talk about a bunch of clueless dolts who not only don’t get it, they simply don’t want to get it.

    A couple of people have pointed out in the comments that:
    a) vandalism isn’t protected speech; and,
    b) there is nothing “civil” about vandalism (this is in response to people claiming Ms. Eltahawy was engaging in “civil disobedience”),
    only to get shouted down as a “racist piece of shit”, which seems to be the go-to rebuttal for any argument.

    I guess the Heckler’s Veto is the new Freedom of Speech. Fuckheads.

  6. Erik H. says:

    You said “I don’t believe that, strictly speaking, that vandalism of the poster should be completely prohibited.”

    I am very curious to hear some defense of that.

    After all, everyone presumably has equal access here. The ability of the protestors to put up anti-Geller, anti-Israel, pro-Muslim, or even pro-jihad advertisements is just as great as Geller’s ability to post her own information.

    With that in mind, under what First Amendment (or other) theory would you consider that it would be acceptable to vandalize Geller’s poster in any manner at all? You appear to be drawing a line between that which does or does not “leave the message intact,” but that seems to be ducking the question.

    Even those protests which “leave the message intact” are by COOPTING Geller’s message (the space; the formula of the ad; the presentation) rather than COMPETING with it. Right?

    • I object to vandalism that silences the original message. I do not object to “vandalism” that adds to the debate. You are correct: I am drawing a line between conduct that leaves the message intact. I agree with you that it may be a legally challenging position to take: “Some vandalism is okay, as long as it is not significant enough to silence the original poster, and it only adds to the debate.” So if someone slaps a sticker in the void space on the poster, which challenges its assertions, it fosters debate without silencing the original speaker.

      Would that be an adequate defense to a vandalism charge? Not sure. But, if I were a juror, I wouldn’t vote to convict.

      • Ernie Menard says:

        The poster wasn’t debating anything. The poster wasn’t inviting rebutting arguments. Let those people that care to debate or rebut purchase their own spot and place a rebutting poster.

        Vandalism of another persons property cannot be rationally defended as an act of speech.

  7. Similar situation. The army had a billboard that said, “We’ll pay you $800 a month to learn a skill.” (This was a while ago.) It was in white capital letters on a black background. Someone climbed up on the billboard and painted over the letters “learn a s” in black, rendering them invisible and expressing their opinion of what one really is paid to do in the army. This led to the newspaper publishing a photo of both the original and the vandalized billboards, leading to more people seeing both. Suppressing free speech or not?

  8. [...] The Legal Satyricon – A Pox On Both Your Houses [...]

  9. Dismoun says:

    While i’m fairly sympathetic to ms.Eltahawy’s intentions, she seems to have reached a master-level in unintentional irony. When the arresting officer mentions that she also spraypainted Ms. HALL, she repatedly expresses her defence “She got in my way” “I asked her to get out of my way peacefully”.

    So it’s okay to spraypaint someone, so long as you ask them to get out of the way first? Would she allow this defence to IDI soldiers who bulldoze occupied palestinian dwellings? I doubt it.

    I think that the billboard is atrocious, but as noted above, the cure would be to take out another billboard to rebut it.

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