Free Speech in a Free Society

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Being married to a Jewish man and having spent many hours at synagogue, I have heard directly from people who are passionate and fearful about political attacks on Israel. And I recall with deep sadness the deadly attack in Seattle at Jewish Federation in 2006. 

I keep these perspectives in mind as the ACLU-WA challenges King County's refusal to honor its contract to place on Metro buses paid ads that are sharply critical of Israeli government actions toward Palestinians.

The prospect of the ads generated an outpouring of strong opposition. The County Executive, who initially resisted the pressure, a few days later cancelled the bus ads, asserting significant security concerns and “risk of service disruption.”

Many Americans are concerned about political rhetoric and fear where it can lead, but chipping away at our fundamental speech rights is not the answer. When the threat of violence arises, for whatever reason, in a democracy, we must stop the violence, not the speech.  It is the American way. 

As a civil society, we can encourage each other and our leaders to avoid personally hostile and hateful language. But as a free and democratic society, we cannot let our government suppress even speech we hate.  Nor as Americans should we assume that speech we abhor will necessarily incite violence. Yes, the Mideast is a volatile subject, but differences can’t be swept under the rug.  Vigorous debate by all sides, not suppression, is the right response. 

Ironically, the ACLU-WA Board of Directors and I were discussing our response to the cancellation of the bus ads at the same time the horrific shootings were taking place in Tucson. That shocking tragedy has sparked a national debate over the role of superheated rhetoric and violent imagery in political debate.

It is reasonable for us all – elected officials and everyday citizens alike – to engage in serious conversations about the role of rhetoric in our public discourse. We should consider the impact of verbiage that demonizes opponents or makes wildly exaggerated claims about their policies or uses imagery of guns and war. 

Threats of violence are, indeed, intimidating. If the threats are at all credible, the County should treat them seriously, but not by suddenly changing its rules and limiting ads that assert a political opinion.  Rather, our government should focus its considerable law enforcement resources on the people who are threatening the violence.  

I have been warned that the Mideast Awareness Campaign bus ads could end up covered with graffiti or that the buses’ operation could be disrupted.  These days, people are angry and scared for a whole host of reasons – the economy, war, terrorism, and health care, to name a few – as well as Mideast politics.  In a democracy should we stop talking about important policy issues when the terms of the discourse make others very uncomfortable? Can speech be limited if it might provoke someone to commit an act of violence? More broadly, how can we keep America safe and free?

As we consider these questions, let’s keep in mind that mild speech doesn’t need protection.  It is when we are faced with controversial speech, speech that is intensely upsetting, that our adherence to the First Amendment is most important.

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