Hate Speech, Islam and Israel

President Barack Obama speaks during the 67th session of the General Assembly at United Nations headquarters, Tuesday, Sept.
President Barack Obama speaks during the 67th session of the General Assembly at United Nations headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

There was a moment of laughter at the United Nations on September 24 when President Obama, addressing the General Assembly, said "I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day." As the laughter subsided he went on "and I will always defend their right to do so."

The issue at hand, however, was not the awful things people say about President Obama. It was the awful things they say about Islam. The right to say such things, Obama argued convincingly, must be protected. There remains a question, however, of whether Americans really practice what he preached.

"Freedom and self-determination," Obama maintained, "are not unique to one culture. These are not simply American values or western values -- they are universal values." Although he didn't mention it, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, is based on that premise.

Among the universally valued freedoms are freedoms of religion and speech. These are included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and protected in the United States by the First Amendment.

We must support free speech, Obama argued, even when it is "hateful." There are at least two reasons for this. First, we respect "the capacity of each individual to express their own views and practice their own faith." And second, at a more practical level, we recognize that "in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities."

So what can be done about hateful speech? The best response is "more speech -- the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect." We cannot stop the flow of information, but we can disagree with false statements, condemn malicious ones, and provide alternative perspectives.

Freedom is individual and personal, but it is also a social responsibility and a compact we make with each other. "To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains," said Obama, quoting Nelson Mandela, "but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."

Freedom in this full sense is something we can never enjoy alone. We are only truly free within a social system that respects freedom for all. Thus, as Obama put it, "those who love freedom for themselves must ask themselves how much they're willing to tolerate freedom for others."

But do we Americans really practice what our president preaches? This is a question the California State Assembly might well ask itself in light of its recent resolution equating serious criticism of Israel with hate speech against Jews and urging colleges and universities to respond vigorously to such speech.

In a resolution passed overwhelmingly and without debate in August the Assembly admonished administrators to take strong action to ensure that Jewish students are not subjected to a hostile environment of anti-Semitism, broadly defined to include virtually any critical analysis of Israeli history or policy.

The resolution does not have the force of law, and it does note in passing that administrators should not violate the First Amendment. It could be argued that it is simply calling for "more speech," as suggested by Obama, speech designed, in this case, to make Jewish students feel welcome and appreciated.

But the lack of a principled approach undermines this defense. The resolution singles out Jewish students from all others. It highlights what are perceived as attacks on Judaism while ignoring far more direct and malicious attacks on Islam. It chills and restricts criticism of Israel but says nothing about criticism of Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, or any other country or regime.

Liberty for some is not liberty at all. Genuine freedom of speech would leave all of us free to question all ideas and the legitimacy of all existing institutions. We are right to refuse to make an exception for Islam, but only if we refuse to make an exception for anyone.

Free speech is indeed a universal value, but the urge to restrict objectionable speech is equally universal. We can have as much freedom for ourselves as we're willing to have for each other. With respect to freedoms of belief and expression, as President Obama argued, we should all support an expansive conception of liberty.