The Politics of Free Speech: Israeli Apartheid Week, Ann Coulter and Mobilization from Below

Debates about free speech are filled with such double standards. The free speech of some is defended, while that of others is deemed out of bounds. Too often free speech is used as a flag of convenience to defend allies, while happily shutting down foes.

For anti-capitalists, free speech has to be a serious commitment, tied to the goal of developing people’s capacities to think, communicate and act collectively. At the same time, we cannot simply buy into liberal notions that free speech already exists (in the form of legal protections, for example), and that our job is simply to defend it whenever it is under attack.

For anti-capitalists, free speech needs to be understood in relation to social inequalities and struggles for liberation. Free speech, like other rights in a capitalist society, exists more as a formality than a reality. Our actual ability to openly discuss and debate issues of the day is impeded in many ways.

The commercial media dominate the public exchange of ideas, trivializing news and current events in the quest to sell products. Parliamentary democracy narrows the acceptable political spectrum to those of the dominant parties. Structural inequalities, including racism, sexism, heterosexism, colonialism and class domination, all work to make it seem natural that certain voices should speak with authority while others are relegated to the margins. The education system teaches that learning comes through listening to the expert at the front of the room rather that figuring it out for yourself. Free speech, in short, is something we are fighting for, rather than a formal right to be protected.

The fight for free expression is central to the anti-capitalist project, as change from below happens only when great numbers of people collectively and democratically mobilize to take power with their own hands. The radical project of change from below needs free thinkers and independent activists who can make sense of the world and work together to change it. Persuasion in the context of the open flow of ideas must be a fundamental tool in this project. The project of change from below is based on full confidence that people can make sense of the world and act on it to make changes. We must therefore be confident that people can critically assess a variety of ideas and sort out the implications of what they are hearing.

Yet free speech on its own will never change the world. Those who rule will not give it up, no matter how persuasive our arguments for justice may be. They have the state on their side and access to force to safeguard their monopolistic control on the key productive resources of society. Just occupy a factory, or be poor on the streets, and you will see the way that power in a capitalist is backed by the use of force.

It is only the great collective power we can build through solidarity that can challenge that force. The ability to shut down production, occupy our workplaces, schools and communities and take over the streets in our hundreds of thousands or millions is the great counter-power we have in our hands. It is not speech alone but the combination of exchanging ideas and mobilizing together that actually produces change.

So free speech matters, and that is why radicals have fought so hard for it. The early 20th century revolutionary movement in North America, for example, fought explicitly for free speech as a condition for workplace and political organizing. For example, anarchist Emma Goldman was a passionate advocate of free speech. She pointed out the gap between the formal right to free speech and actual practices of suppression. She wrote to a Chicago anarchist publication in 1902, “For the benefit of those of your readers who still believe that freedom of speech is a reality, and that America is the freest country on earth, permit me to give you a few details of my experience with the Chicago police.”

The call for free speech is important in itself to a movement that seeks genuine democracy, collective action and people who think for themselves. But fighting for free speech is not simple; there are many complex issues that arise. This is particularly true if we recognize the relationship between free speech and societal inequalities. The speech of some can be the silencing of others. Freedom of speech is therefore unthinkable unless we prioritize the voices of the most excluded. Racism, sexism, heterosexism, class exploitation and other forms of domination deprive many of a real hearing in this society.

I am going to discuss two cases to try to develop ideas about a method for working our way through these arguments: the silencing campaign against Palestine solidarity and the Ann Coulter event at University of Ottawa. I will use these two cases to say something about free speech more generally.

Free Speech and Palestine

The campaign to silence Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) reappeared in 2010. The members of the Ontario Legislature who were present at that moment consented unanimously to a motion denouncing the event. Federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff has yet again weighed in on the side of silencing IAW. A motion also made it to the floor of the federal House of Commons, though it did not receive unanimous consent.

This campaign against IAW is part of a broad silencing offensive launched by Israel advocacy organizations and their allies, particularly the Harper Tories. The campaign has been particularly intense since February 2009.  Last year, the Israeli Apartheid Week poster was banned on four Ontario campuses. At around the same time, Tory immigration minister Jason Kenney pulled funding for immigrant settlement program from the Canadian Arab Federation, on the basis of a speech by the organization’s president at a Gaza solidarity rally. Since then, funding for Kairos (a Christian social justice organization) was pulled by the Harper Tories on the basis of their work with Palestinians. The NGO Rights and Democracy, with its mandate to promote human rights globally, has been gutted because it had made links with Palestinian human rights organizations.

In March 2009, British MP George Galloway was banned from entering the country, in part because of his Palestine solidarity work. In June, the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism (CPCCA) was formed with the explicit focus on reframing anti-semitism in terms of the so-called “new anti-semitism” that focuses on criticism of the State of Israel rather than Jewish human rights. The silencing campaign came back to greet IAW 2010.

The vociferousness of the silencing campaign is in part a response to the growth in Palestine solidarity mobilization since the brutal Israeli assault on Gaza in December 2008-January 2009, which left over 1300 Palestinians dead, at least 85% of them civilians, including 434 children. It is also a response to the growing effectiveness of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel launched by a wide range of Palestinian organizations in 2005.

This silencing campaign reflects the central legitimation project of the Israeli state since its independence in 1948. The goal of the Israeli state has been to preserve the innocent story of a brutally oppressed people returning to their ancestral home to seek refuge after the horrors of the Holocaust. The presence of Palestinians complicates this innocent story, raising the issue of the forced expulsion and ongoing oppression of the people actually living in that “ancestral land.”

From a Palestinian perspective, 1948 is referred to as the Nakba, or catastrophe. The story of the Nakba has been traced through Palestinian oral history and the Israeli archives. Palestinians were driven out of their homes through armed force, terror and fear which Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi describes as “psychological and terroristic warfare.”  This campaign took a systematic approach to driving out Palestinians and ultimately uprooted about 800 000 people, more than 50% of the Palestinian population. In this process, 531 villages were destroyed and eleven urban neighbourhoods were emptied of inhabitants.

After the forced expulsion, the Israeli state attempted to erase the physical traces of the Palestinian community. Over 700 000 olive and orange trees and 250 000 acres of agricultural land were destroyed. This massive destruction of agriculture certainly does not fit the innocent story of “making the desert bloom.”  Jewish National Fund forests were planted to hide the ruins of Palestinian villages.

Palestinians who were not driven out of Israel ended up as second-class citizens in the self-proclaimed “Jewish state.”  A wide range of restrictions and limitations constrain their access to education, land, state benefits, jobs and political rights.

The preservation of the Zionist story of innocence by the silencing of Palestinian experiences has made Israel a specialist in techniques of dehumanization and erasure aimed at the Palestinian population. This has intensified since the illegal occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem in 1967. Over 450 000 illegal Israeli settlers now live in the West Bank. A nine metre-tall, 450 kilometer-long partition wall that goes deep into the West Bank is under construction. There is a system of over 700 kilometers of settler roads through the West Bank, which Palestinians are not allowed to use, or even cross in many places. A regime of hundreds of fixed and mobile checkpoints makes the most basic daily movements — for example to go to school, work or shopping — a huge investment of time, effort and soul.

Over 40% of West Bank is now inaccessible to Palestinians. Even the World Bank has described the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel as a “shattered economic space.”

This sure looks like apartheid. The term “apartheid” is defined specifically in  Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as “inhumane acts … committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”  At very least the applicability of the term to the situation of the Palestinians would seem to be open to debate.

But Israel advocacy groups and their allies are trying to stop discussion and debate, claiming that criticism of Israel outside of very narrow bounds is anti-semitism. Specifically, advocacy groups have tried to rule out the use of the term “apartheid” to describe Israel, the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions and any questioning of the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. This is a nonsensical extension of the idea of anti-semitism.

Jewish organizations in Canada long fought for inclusion, challenging the idea that this was a Christian state. Jewish human rights activists played an important role in challenging the compulsory Christian education that used to be part of the Ontario educational curriculum. It was not “anti-Christian” to apply universal standards and fight for inclusion, nor is it “anti-European” for indigenous people to claim their rights to the land now called Canada. The restriction of free speech on the basis of offending identifiable groups risks measures against all kinds of freedom fights, including black power advocates and indigenous sovereignty activists.

The campaign to silence all but mild and shallow criticism of the Israeli state has been backed by the Harper Tory government and Liberal opposition leader Michael Ignatieff. The NDP as a whole has not taken a principled stand to oppose this silencing campaign, though MP Libby Davies has spoken out clearly in defense of Palestinian rights. Fortunately, the Bloc Quebecois recently withdrew from the CPCCA on the basis of the Coalition’s anti-Palestinian bias.

This campaign is one of the most important free speech issues of our day, as it threatens to make the experiences of Palestinians unspeakable and to systematically suppress solidarity activism.

Ann Coulter in Ottawa

There has been barely a peep in the media in defense of free speech in response to the concerted effort to silence Palestine solidarity. However, when a meeting by US right-wing speaker Ann Coulter did not go ahead at the University of Ottawa in the face of heated demonstrations, the papers and airwaves were filled with talk about free speech.

It was inspiring to hear the news that a crowd of about two thousand demonstrated against Ann Coulter in Ottawa. Coulter draws on the most vile  racist stereotypes, particularly in her vicious attacks on Muslims. She pretends to be the underdog up against political correctness while in fact reinforcing the dominant prejudices in society. She has called for the conversion of Muslims to Christianity and stated that Muslims who are denied access to air travel by racial profiling should take flying carpets instead.

The night before her scheduled Ottawa appearance, Coulter was challenged at a talk at the University of Western Ontario. Student Fatima Al-Dhaher asked “As a 17-year-old student of this university, Muslim, should I be converted to Christianity? Second of all, since I don’t have a magic carpet, what other modes do you suggest?” Among other things, Coulter responded, “Take a camel.”

Coulter is a high-profile racist, and it makes absolute sense to demonstrate against her appearances. Such demonstrations are also completely consistent with free speech. It would, however, be inconsistent with free speech to prevent her from speaking. From reports it seems clear that it was not the demonstrators who stopped Coulter from speaking. The event seems to have been shut down by its organizers on the advice of campus security and/or police.

Actions by the University of Ottawa administration did threaten free speech. University of Ottawa Vice-President Francois Houle sent Coulter a letter in advance of her appearance warning her about Canadian hate speech laws. However well-intentioned, this is inconsistent with free speech. It sets a very dangerous precedent for university administrators to restrict speech on campus.

At Ryerson University, the administration has proposed a draft Statement on Freedom of Speech to the Senate. Most of the statement affirms the importance of free speech on campus, but near the end is a dangerous cluster of exceptions: “When speech on campus is used in a way that prevents the lawful exercise of free speech by others, interferes with University business, threatens in any way the safety or security of the community or is considered hate speech, the University may act to prevent it.”

This would give the university administration great latitude in shutting down speech and activism on campus. Any student demonstration worth its salt is going to “interfere with University business” at some level, as noise could penetrate into classrooms. It is clear that labelling Israel an apartheid state is considered hate speech by Israel advocacy organizations. This Statement would provide a rationale to the Administration for shutting it down on this basis.

There is, then, an important distinction between protesting against Ann Coulter and calling for the event to be shut down or completely preventing her from talking. The fact that she promotes racism does not in itself justify a call to prevent her from speaking, but it is certainly a reason to mobilize against her, to express outrage at her racism and challenge it through raising voices in protest.

Free Speech and Equity

The idea that speech deemed racist might also be protected as free speech may seem to go against equity concerns and the protection of racialized people from harassment that silences.

As radicals, we cannot seriously raise questions of free speech without also considering the way access to expression is stacked in this society, along lines of class, race, gender and sexuality. In the words of an old slogan, “freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.”

Therefore our call for free speech must be based around positive encouragement for the most excluded voices and a serious analysis of differential access to the means of expression. The voices that dominate in the media, at meetings, in legislative bodies, in business suits and at the front of the classroom are disproportionately white, well-off and male.

It is important to think as well about the extent to which the speech of some may silence others. This is clearly the case with fascists, who use violence to deliberately shut down opposing voices. That is a centrepiece of fascism, and a nazi terror march through a Jewish, black or Asian neighbourhood is not “free speech.” The denial of free speech to fascists is an exceptional case based on their concerted use of terror and silencing.

But racist, sexist and homophobic speech more generally also silences at some level, by attempting to disqualify women, people of colour or queers as fully human, creating an atmosphere of overt or implied exclusion. Yet this does not mean that we should seek to silence all racist, sexist or homophobic speech.

Indeed, our fundamental position should be to argue for free speech. Any exceptions should be on a narrow and clearly specified basis. Along with a specific exception for fascism on the basis of its consistent violent suppression of expression, I would argue for two other specific cases. Corporations and state institutions do not qualify for free speech and therefore military recruiters or corporate representatives, for example, might be not be heard out in particular situations without any threat to free speech. Also, an organized boycott (such as the Palestinian BDS campaign) operating deliberately as a pressure tactic in the context of a broad solidarity campaign with a particular group engaged in struggles against oppression can also be justified as a necessary strategy to gain access to expression for those who are denied it. In these cases, campaigns need to have a serious commitment to education to raise awareness of the issues at stake and to explain why free speech arguments might not apply.

There has been some tendency among radicals, particularly on campuses, to imagine that it is our job to create safe spaces where discriminatory language is never heard. There are some real problems with this. First, silencing interferes with engaging with people to persuade them to reconsider. Of course, we are not seeking to persuade Ann Coulter, but there are others who, for example, think she is funny who might be convinced to think again. Radicals need to be optimistic that it is possible to challenge racism, sexism and heterosexism, even through these run very deeply in the social fabric.

The politics of change through mobilization from below is fundamentally rooted in the confidence that people can learn, think freely and act collectively. If we cannot trust people to make their own way through complex discussions and debates, then we are sunk as a genuine movement from below. It is therefore much more powerful to explain clearly to someone why and how their comment is offensive than to tell them they cannot use certain words.

Secondly, a focus on correct speech can strategically reorient the movement away from eliminating exploitation and oppression towards regulating expression. The bolder our goals to change the world, the more we need to think seriously about building alliances on the basis of the defence of the most vulnerable. We need to pass resolutions in unions, mobilize together in the streets and make demands on the state, employers and institutions. Our allies will not arrive perfectly prepared to take up these issues without displaying some of the prejudices that are commonplace in this society. This requires a patient educational process of open exchange in which people sort out their ideas through clumsy and sometimes mistaken utterances and constructive challenges.

Finally, by attempting to police discriminatory speech we create the conditions for undermining our own freedom of expression. It is clear, for example, that Israel advocacy organizations are attempting to use equity criteria to silence Palestine solidarity. We are responding, in part, by challenging their analysis of what constitutes anti-semitism. This is completely legitimate. But is it any different than Ann Coulter challenging our categorization of her speech as racist? We can disagree with her, protest loudly and strongly against her, but if we shut her down we legitimate those who would shut us down.

Ultimately, a commitment to free speech is a vote of confidence in the strength of our ideas and the potential for collective struggles for change. The problem we face in capitalist society is too little speech, not too much. Of course, much of what we do hear is vile, given the pervasiveness of racism, sexism, heterosexism and class domination. But we will not change that by shutting down speech we disagree with. Rather our goal must be to open up expression, while remaining mindful of the unequal access to voice in the existing society. Free speech needs to be a central goal of the anti-capitalist movement, and we need lots of discussion and debate about how it works in relation to equity.

Alan Sears is an editor of New Socialist and an active member of Faculty for Palestine.