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Free Speech Defenders Must Be Consistent
The massacre in Israel and the war in Gaza have led to a misguided clampdown on free expression.
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Since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, a bloody war has broken out in Gaza. A war of words has also broken out online, in the media, cultural institutions, academia, and on the streets of countries around the world. It is no surprise that opinions on the Israel-Palestine conflict are sharply divided. However, a shocking feature of the debate is the failure of many citizens in open democracies to unequivocally condemn the systematic and targeted killing of civilians, carried out in the most depraved manner since ISIS.
Students and academics at elite universities in the United States have justified and sometimes even celebrated the mass slaughter of Israeli civilians, including participants at a music festival in the Negev desert and families butchered in their homes. In Europe and Australia, pro-Palestinian demonstrations have been accompanied by horrific antisemitic chants, including calls to “gas the Jews” and for the destruction of Israel. In Berlin, a synagogue was attacked with firebombs while Stars of David were scrawled on apartments housing Jews, reminiscent of Nazi policies in the 1930s. Muslims have also been targeted: In Chicago, a Palestinian-American boy and his mother were brutally stabbed by their landlord; while the mother survived, the young boy lost his life.
In times of crisis, the default reaction of authorities and institutions is to assert control of the public sphere. The war between Israel and Hamas is no exception. In France and Germany, authorities have temporarily banned pro-Palestinian demonstrations, citing public order and the need to prevent antisemitism (the French ban was partially upheld by a top court). In Denmark, Palestinian protesters burning Israeli flags are being investigated under a provision of the criminal code protecting foreign nations against insult. The European Commission and its relentless crusader for online safety, Thierry Breton, have sent letters to X, YouTube, Meta, and TikTok, demanding that these platforms not only delete “illegal content” (a concept that differs widely between member states and depends on context) but also the vaguely-defined concept of “disinformation,” which is not in and of itself illegal under European human rights law.
The outpouring of antisemitism and glorification of terror has also made media, cultural, and educational institutions jittery. The Guardian, citing antisemitism, fired cartoonist Steve Bell for a cartoon critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the newspaper deemed antisemitic. Several cultural events in both Europe and the United States featuring Palestinian authors, filmmakers, and musicians have been canceled despite no relationship to, or support of, terrorism. In the United States, lawmakers are demanding that universities that fail to discipline students for what they consider antisemitism be defunded and even that foreign students supportive of Palestine be deported.
But open democracies should not retreat from the institutional and civic commitment to free expression, however ugly many of its current manifestations are. Freedom of expression serves its most important function at times of deep polarization, where the sense of righteous indignation tempts us to silence the viewpoints we hate with scant regard for the collateral damage to democracy, freedom, and tolerance that constitute the necessary precondition for social peace in diverse societies.
The bans against pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Germany and France are particularly problematic. A blanket prohibition on the right to assembly targeted specifically against supporters of one side of a conflict dividing world opinion sets a dangerous precedent, allowing democratic governments to discriminate against particular viewpoints. Such a ban also fails to distinguish between protesters critical of Israel’s response to Hamas’ attack—a perfectly legitimate point of view—and those who call for the death and destruction of Jews and Israel. Moreover, cracking down on protests may act as a pressure cooker that can lead to explosions of pent-up anger. Illegal demonstrations in Germany have already led to riots when police sought to break them up. Free speech, on the other hand, can act as a safety valve that permits grievances to be aired and channeled towards political rather than violent ends.
Bigoted opinions may be of little social value, but knowing that someone is a bigot can be of great practical value. However disturbing to Jews around the world, the groundswell of outright antisemitism in open democracies has revealed the depth of Jew hatred still persisting in the 21st century. This phenomenon cannot be effectively countered if hidden from view and lurking in the dark. Those who support silencing “dangerous” opinions coercively have failed to answer the question: Are we really safer when we know less about what motivates our neighbors?
The bans against pro-Palestinian demonstrations also undermine efforts to resist the increasingly vocal demands for prohibitions against “islamophobia” and the expansion of “hate speech” laws to cover blasphemy. This is an agenda advanced by Muslim minorities in Europe and Muslim-majority states at the United Nations. Muslim majority states and some Danish Muslims have enthusiastically backed the Danish government’s proposed ban against burning the Quran, a deeply misguided policy of appeasement towards states like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan, as well as jihadist terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, which has threatened to punish Denmark for tolerating the desecration of the Quran. It will be difficult to argue why it is an unacceptable abridgment of free speech to punish the burning of Qurans if Muslims are punished for burning the Israeli flag, or even protesting against Israeli policies.
The European Commission’s claim—that the Israel-Palestine conflict coupled with the war in Ukraine has created “an unprecedented increase in illegal and harmful content being disseminated online” that requires social media platforms to act as privatized censors—is also counterproductive. Anyone shielded from the outpouring of extreme polarization and competing narratives accompanying October 7 would risk missing the bigger picture of how the conflict shapes opinion around the world. It would also rob the public of deeply disturbing but necessary information and facts. The videos released by the Hamas operatives who carried out the terrorist attack are essential to documenting the scale and brutality of what took place and pushing back against the many October 7 Truthers who claim that the pogrom didn’t happen, that if it happened it was a legitimate military operation targeting Israeli soldiers, or that if civilians died it must have been carried out by Israel.
Moreover, independent researchers have used the deluge of uploaded content to provide a more reliable picture of what’s going on in Gaza than initial reports in many legacy media outlets. This includes the now widely discredited claims that the blast at the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza was carried out by the IDF and resulted in 500 civilian casualties. Online content is also crucial in documenting the scale of Israeli military operations, including the rapidly mounting costs to infrastructure and civilians, many of whom are children.
Defining the limits of free speech is often more difficult when it comes to cultural and academic institutions rather than government officials. Nonetheless, as institutions like FIRE have documented, cancel culture is a real phenomenon with wide-ranging consequences for the broader ecosystem of free speech. It might be tempting to argue that many of those now facing cancellations for opinions ranging from sympathy towards the Palestinian cause to outright support for Hamas are merely reaping what they’ve sowed. After all, they represent various strands of progressive ideology that have long demanded the silencing of voices dissenting from very expansive definitions of racial and social justice. But while such hypocrisy should be called out, one cannot fight back against cancel culture at universities and simultaneously demand that students and members of faculty be punished for controversial speech protected by the First Amendment. If one believes that free speech is the first freedom of democracy, hypocrisy must be fought with principles, not tit for tat.
There are, of course, limits to what kind of speech must be protected. Incitement to imminent violence and terrorism should and must be prosecuted. Jewish communities must be protected against the very real and systemic threats that they’re facing around the world, just as Muslims and Palestinians should not face retaliatory action from proponents of Israel. Similarly, while universities are best served by a policy of principled neutrality, they cannot ignore academics who make threats based on ethnicity or religion or use such characteristics to discriminate against students in the classroom.
Free speech is often ugly, messy, and hurtful. Upholding this principle during times of heated conflict is extremely difficult for humans prone to be ruled by passion rather than reason. But in its essence, free speech is the antithesis of violence and allows us to settle differences through dialogue, understanding, and compromise.
Jacob Mchangama is the CEO of the Future of Free Speech Project, Research Professor at Vanderbilt University, and a senior fellow with the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.
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