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.”
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.
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.