Home » “The Massacre in Israel and the War in Gaza Have Led to a Misguided Clampdown on Free Expression”

“The Massacre in Israel and the War in Gaza Have Led to a Misguided Clampdown on Free Expression”

Prof. Jacob Mchangama (Vanderbilt) has an excellent article on the subject; an excerpt:

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….

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.


November 2023