Defend Free Speech, Fight Hate Speech

by: Abraham H. Foxman | September 25, 2012

The anger and the violence that raged around the anti-Islamic film trailer on YouTube leads to a number of reactions.

First, one should not forget the almost hair-trigger resort to violence in extremist Islamic circles, of which the anti-Western attacks on U.S. missions in Libya and Egypt are just a small part.  Almost every day in some corner of the Islamic world, Muslims are attacking Muslims for their religious beliefs, Sunnis vs. Shia and vice-versa, including attacks on mosques and on religious holidays.

The focus, therefore, needs first to be on the violence resulting from this culture of religious intolerance, of which anti-Western rage is just one manifestation. Violence is never an acceptable reaction.

Beyond that, however, is the profound question of the right of free expression against the right not to be defamed.

As the director of the Anti-Defamation League, an organization whose number one priority is to combat anti-Semitism, these values can at times appear to be competing, are greatly challenging and not always simple to decipher. 

In the United States, we see the protection of free speech under the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights as a core value of a thriving democracy.

Free speech has also proven to be especially important for those in the religious minority, particularly Jews, in the United States.  It is perhaps not a coincidence that the First Amendment protects not only free speech, but also the freedom of religion.  Those provisions, taken together, have enabled people of many faiths and of no faith to thrive in America, free from government interference.  And they have been singularly important for American Jews.  Freedom of speech, universally accepted, has been a great force for equality, for non-discrimination, and for justice.

But freedom of speech in America is also more than a right; it carries with it a serious responsibility.  For the marketplace of ideas to work – indeed for democracy to work – those who see and hear speech that they believe is offensive or hateful must be willing and ready to exercise their own free speech rights in response.  They must stand up for others who are less capable of standing up for themselves.  

And this is really true of any democracy.  A democracy does not work if people are not engaged, and to be engaged, people must have the freedom to express themselves.  Leaders everywhere have the added responsibility of educating others by their own example to become engaged in speaking out against expressions of hate.

This works in America because of our history, our pluralism, our constitutional system and because the public has been educated on the idea that the best way to fight hate speech is with good speech and exposure.

Of course, for us at the ADL we have other methods of dealing with hate, including monitoring and exposing hate groups, demanding that leaders, like presidents of universities, speak up against haters on campus, and when it moves from speech to action, by hate crime laws.

We recognize at the same time, however, that the American experience and system are unique.  When it comes to Europe, Israel and elsewhere, we are not so quick to try to impose our way of thinking on very different societies.  

In Germany and elsewhere, with the tragic history of massive anti-Semitism, laws banning swastikas and anti-Semitic statements are common.  There is recognition that the free speech standard that exists in America is not the norm for Europe.  And while we are proud of our system, we accept that a less strict boundary between speech and action may be more appropriate elsewhere.  Indeed, in Israel, too, there is greater inclination to ban certain types of incendiary hate speech.

At this point, I am reluctant to say that we have it right and Israel and the Europeans do not.  Rather I would say that for America it is the law, protected by the courts, and it has largely worked to the benefit of all, including Jews. 

For Israel, for Europe, other approaches are necessary.  There is not a First-Amendment-like tradition in these societies, and therefore it is unlikely that a purist position could be adopted when people are outraged by hate speech. 

On the other hand, countries that put restrictions on speech should be constantly on the alert to make sure that these are narrowly tailored and do not become an excuse for limiting free expression.

As Jews, we know better than most how devastating words of hate can be.  But we also know how equally devastating can be a process in which free expression is restricted under the guise of avoiding certain kinds of hate.  On college campuses in the United Kingdom, there are efforts to ban pro-Israel activities because they are deemed hateful.

As long as we keep in mind the need both to provide true free expression while still speaking up and encouraging others to join the effort against hate speech, the dilemma that these two matters raise can be overcome.