September 29, 2002
Direct Action and Free Speech

I've been discussing free speech again, and thinking about what is legitimate direct action.

Recently, the cover of the Globe and Mail featured an incident at Concordia University in Montreal, where Benjamin Netanyahu (former Israeli PM), was scheduled to speak.

About 200 protesters -- including a small number of Jewish students, though who knows who was doing what -- suceeded in shutting down the Netanyahu's talk by crowding around the building and blocking the entrance. After police tried to move them with tear gas and pepper spray, some chairs were thrown and windows were broken. No one explicitly threatened Netanyahu with violence, but he decided not to speak. The Canadian press reported:

Mr. Netanyahu was never in the building and his handlers had said he would not give his speech unless his safety could be guaranteed.

Following the incident, there was a bit of an uproar about freedom of speech, and how Netanyahu's right to speak had been violated. This seems a little of bizarre on the face of it, since he chose not to speak, and I haven't seen any report of a credible threat to his safety.

But I'm interested in whether intending to keep someone like Netanyahu from speaking can be morally (and tactically) justified. I haven't reached a conclusion yet, but what follows is a sketch of the tools I think are useful in thinking about freedom of speech and direct action.

Would freedom of speech in this case (a speech on a university campus) apply to everyone? Would a neo-nazi who advocated the removal of Jews from Israel be allowed to speak, and if he was, would it be justifiable to use nonviolent direct action to keep him from speaking?

Answer: if hate speech is intolerable, then yes. So is it hate speech or intolerable?

If it was legal for someone like the hypothetical neo-Nazi to speak, but I knew/was convinced that it was politically unacceptable (i.e. greater harm would come from giving him a space to spread hate than would come from establishing an exception to free speech), then what course of action is available to me, politically?

Answer: write a letter opposing his right to speak, demonstrate, hold a counter-speech, petition the proprietors not to let the speech happen, or organize to physically prevent him from speaking or prevent the space being used without hurting anyone.

How much less legitimate is physical prevention compared to more "civil" means?

This raises some other interesting questions. What the protesters did was create a situation in which it was undesirable for Netanyahu to speak. This happens all the time. Notably, at Izzy Asper's newspapers, where all but the bravest columnists are afraid to criticize Israel or Jean Chretien for fear of losing favour with their employer, and even the brave ones have been fired in a few notable instances. Interestingly enough, Asper was the man responsible for bringing Netanyahu to Concordia.

Clearly, there is a difference between Asper creating conditions in which columnists are extremely likely to choose not to criticize Israel and some students creating conditions in which it is undesirable or more difficult for Netanyahu to speak. But I think the difference is one of the right of ownership and the fact that there are no laws against controlling the content of a newspaper you own, no matter the public importance.

The answer, then, is that to some extent, everyone is involved in making some positions more or less desirable for other people. The question is of degree, and whether the likely ends justify the means.

Next question: is Netanyahu worthy of censure, and to what extent?

Netanyahu is worthy of censure to the extent that his views are politically abhorrent. According to more than a few sources, he is a leading advocate of toppling the Palestinian authority, and was instrumental in stepping up the building of settlements in the west bank, escalating tensions between Palestinians and Israelis to a large degree. Some might emphasize other things or call the aformentioned sources anti-Semetic. I'll leave the question open.

A few questions remain.

Is direct action (especially if it is successful) worth setting the precedent for other dedicated groups with strongly-held opinions to do the same?

If I take part in a protest against Israeli policies, will I be inadvertantly supporting people who really are anti-semetic?

The gain in media exposure is indisputable (100-student passive, peaceful protests don't make the cover of the Globe), but are perceptions of the cause being spoken for skewed by perceptions of it being against freedom of speech (thanks in no part to punditry and skewed reporting)?

posted by dru in activism