Friday, September 28, 2012

What is Freedom of Expression?

Mona Eltahawy
Even the most ardent devotee of free speech, and I would include myself in that category, will recognize that we do not have the moral or legal prerogative to engage in all forms of expression. I think everyone will agree that I should be prohibited from expressing myself by running over those I dislike with my car. If I try to damage someone’s reputation by intentionally making false statements about that person, I will be subject to slander or libel laws, although those of us who are dedicated to freedom of speech should see these types of laws as dangerous instruments, to be used with extreme caution.
Does the limitation of free expression go beyond doing physical and reputational damage to others? Do we, for example, have the right to enter an auditorium and shout down a speaker?  This is clearly a form of expression, but it is also a type of intimidation and an interference with the freedom of expression of others. Contemporary activists frequently justify censorship by mob heckling by claiming freedom of expression. I think, though, that University of California President Mark Yudof was entirely correct earlier this year when he condemned disruptive protestors at a pro-Israel event, writing “attempting to shout down speakers is not protected speech. It is an action meant to deny others their right to free speech.”
President Yudof also decried other forms of expression. The protestors were not just trying to silence speakers by shouting, they were also engaging in acts of vandalism, including defacing an Israeli flag at a Jewish student organization by scrawling “terrorists” across the flag. I do believe that the First Amendment gives us the right to give vent to bizarre opinions, such as the view that Israelis or Americans or Canadians or the Dutch are all terrorists. It does not give us the right to do that through vandalism.
This brings us to the more recent case of Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy. The American Freedom Defense Initiative has paid to post an ad in the New York Subway. The ad is controversial, consisting of a statement that reads: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage – support the civilized man. Support Israel, defeat Jihad!”  The New York Transit Authority at first did not want to approve the ad, but did so after a judge ruled that refusing the ad was a violation of free speech. Based on that ruling, it is clear that Eltahawy could have countered by raising funds to post her own ad, denouncing that of the American Freedom Defense Initiative and offering a different view. That is not what she decided to do.
Eltahawy announced on her Twitter site that she was going to buy spray paint and deface the offending poster.  This ensured that she had not only news cameras present, but also supporters of the ad. The resulting edifying spectacle is on Youtube.. When one of the supporters attempted to insert herself between the ad and Eltahawy, the angry Egyptian-American continued her self-expression by spray-painting the defender.
The police showed up, handcuffed the vandal, and took her away. She was later charged with criminal mischief and graffiti. Eltahawy’s response to her arrest was remarkable. “I’m expressing myself and I hurt no one!” she shouted. “This is non-violent protest! You see this, America? This is what happens to non-violent protestors in America in 2012!”  No, getting arrested for criminal mischief is not what happens to non-violent protesters in this country. Getting arrested for criminal mischief is what happens here to people who commit criminal mischief. I wonder if Ms. Eltahawy made the curious assertion that there is a Constitutional right to deface property in public places when she took the test to become a naturalized U.S. citizen.

1 comment:

  1. It's what the ancient Greeks might have called "kairos." Time and place, man, time and place. What's so hard to understand about this, Ms. Mona? If you want to shout your hatred of this ad, by all means, do it from the rooftops. Do it from your blog. Do it on a platform. Do it in an article. Do it from right beside the ad. But the minute you try to deface the ad (or those in front of it), you're no longer engaged in free speech. You're engaged in . . . uhmm . . . rather savage behavior.