Free Speech For The “Right” Ideas

Michelle Goldberg recently focused her column in the New York Times on yet another inexcusable decision of the Trump Administration. (I know, there are several every day…)

The Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti, one of the founders of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, was supposed to be on a speaking tour of the United States this week, with stops at N.Y.U.’s Washington campus and at Harvard. He was going to attend his daughter’s wedding in Texas. I had plans to interview him for “The Argument,” the debate podcast that I co-host, about B.D.S., the controversial campaign to make Israel pay an economic and cultural price for its treatment of the Palestinians.

Yet when Barghouti, a permanent resident of Israel, showed up for his flight from Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport last week, he was informed that the United States was denying him entry. When I spoke to him on Sunday, he still didn’t know exactly why the country where he went to college and lived for many years wasn’t letting him in, but he assumed it was because of his political views. If that’s the case, Barghouti said, it was the first time someone has been barred from America for B.D.S. advocacy.

I believe it was Alexander Meiklejohn who said a nation afraid of ideas is unfit for self-government. He was right.

The efforts of right-wingers to shut down B.D.S. by passing laws that obviously violate the First Amendment’s Free Speech guarantee are especially ironic given their hysteria over the supposed censorship of rightwing speech on the nation’s campuses. (But then, self-awareness has never been a characteristic of the Right.)

Several states have evidently passed laws penalizing, B.D.S. activities, and the Senate recently passed a bill supporting those measures.

According to the American Association of University Professors, some public universities in states with such laws require speakers and other contractors to “sign a statement pledging that they do not now, nor will they in the future, endorse B.D.S.” It’s hard to think of comparable speech restrictions on any other subject.

What makes this effort particularly offensive is that the B.D.S. movement neither engages in nor promotes violence. As Goldberg notes, Its leaders have made a genuine effort to separate anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism–in fact, the Palestinian B.D.S. National Committee demanded that a Moroccan group stop using the term “B.D.S.” in its name because it featured anti-Semitic cartoons on its Facebook page.

An administration unwilling to sanction Saudi Arabia for multiple murders, including the murder of a Washington Post journalist, is willing to penalize people who are advocating a nonviolent economic boycott.

Goldberg’s column goes on to consider why Israel’s defenders consider the B.D.S. movement so threatening, and that part of her column is enlightening but ultimately beside the point. It doesn’t matter whether you applaud or detest B.D.S. If it doesn’t have the right to advocate for its beliefs, neither do those who disagree with those beliefs. Rights–unlike privileges– are indivisible, as a federal court recently affirmed when it struck down the Texas version of these efforts.

Free speech, as Justice Holmes memorably wrote, requires freedom for the idea we hate.

Can ideas be dangerous? Of course. And the nation’s Founders knew that. They also knew that allowing the government to decide which ideas can be communicated and which cannot would be far more dangerous.

by Shelia Kennedy May 1, 2019