What good is the First Amendment if we don’t use it?

Scott Laderman

Last semester I wrote a column, “So-called Friends of Israel are anything but,” Oct. 22, 2002, denouncing a document distributed by Friends of Israel, a student group at the University. In unambiguously revolting terms, the document described Arabs as “the blue-ribbon most illiterate, poorest, and tribally backward (people) on God’s earth” while concurrently denying the existence of the Palestinian people. Instead, it claimed that of the indigenous Arab population of what is today Israel and the Occupied Territories, there are “Other Arabs From The Same General Area Who Are In Deep Denial About Never Being Able To Accomplish Anything In Life And Would Rather Wrap Themselves In The Seductive Melodrama Of Eternal Struggle And Death.”

To simplify the unwieldiness of this appellation, the author of the document – who Friends of Israel misidentified – suggested perhaps the Palestinians should just be referred to as “Adjacent Jew-Haters.” The “executive summary” in which these comments were articulated closed by joking about the desirability of “kill(ing) everything south of the Mediterranean and east of the Jordan.” In nearly every particular, the document was, from start to finish, a disgusting piece of racist garbage.

In response to my column, a University alumnus contacted the Student Activities Office on campus and asked that it “take appropriate disciplinary action” against Friends of Israel. “I strongly believe that our educational institutions should do all (they) can to counter hate speech, not encourage it,” the alumnus maintained. His action presented a difficult but instructive conundrum.

While I concurred with the humanist and antiracist sentiments inspiring the individual’s grievance, I just as strongly disagreed with his desire to see Friends of Israel sanctioned. After a brief exchange in which I explained to him why I opposed any University penalty, the alumnus retracted his complaint. There were and are several reasons for my opposition. First and foremost, I support the right of all people to speech and association, even if I find totally repugnant what they might say.

To be sure, this is not synonymous with supporting the content of their speech or the persons with whom they associate – a distinction too often lost on those who wish to close off debate. But if the right to free speech means anything, it means we must support the right of persons with whom we might disagree morally, intellectually and ethically to express their opinions.

Second, by potentially denying persons this right, it allows them to become “martyrs” of a sort, which is a designation merited neither by Friends of Israel nor, say, the Ku Klux Klan members who years ago fought to march in Skokie, Illinois. And third, I think the best way to address racist or otherwise ignorant speech is not to prevent its circulation but rather to expose and intelligently challenge it.

Sadly, there are many who believe that stifling unpopular views is precisely what this country needs. Following the attacks nearly 18 months ago in New York and Washington, D.C., for instance, critical analyses of U.S. foreign policy – or of the George W. Bush administration more generally – were met with efforts at censorship and intimidation. Speaking personally, my columns in this newspaper unleashed a torrent of vitriol presumably intended to cow me into silence. In a fairly typical missive, a writer in Texas accused me of being one of the “enemies within” that “we will always have to fight.” Another correspondent tersely threatened, “We will find your cave, Sonny Boy.” One woman adjudged me to be “an enemy of America” and declared that “you and your ilk have done enough damage already. Now SHUT THE HELL UP!” In a frightening display of attempted nationalist conformity, numerous “patriots” implored me to “love it or leave it.” Several regretted that my mother did not have an abortion. Almost none of these folks had anything intelligent to say. “Fuck you, Landerman (sic), and the whore bitch that spawned you” was a not unusual message. “Do some damn research before burning your bra, faggot,” said another. One regular detractor of mine later confided, “You’re a slimy asshole and I hope you die soon.”

Usually correspondence calling for my termination, death or deportation is sent exclusively to me. At other times, however, it has been transmitted to the Alumni Association, the University administration or the editors of the Daily. In response to my piece denouncing the racist drivel of Friends of Israel, for example, the paper received a joint letter from a graduate student and a postdoctoral fellow – the latter an “adviser” to the group – objecting to my column as being “well beyond a legitimate expression of opinion. In fact, it was a manifest of vitriolic hate, of incitement and of ignorance. It contributes to a poisoned atmosphere in which some Jews on campus have already received death threats.” Insisting, of course, that they “strongly believe in free speech and in listening to other people’s point of view,” the letter writers nevertheless concluded the commentary “was no ordinary opinion piece. It was unethical smut, which in the name of humanitarianism encourages extreme and potentially violent elements on campus.”

Readers might question how a column condemning racism while decrying its threat to “hopes for peaceful coexistence among the peoples of the Middle East,” as I wrote in the Daily, could be spun as an incitement to violence. But reasonable consideration is usually not the purpose of this sort of mail. It is, rather, what media scholars refer to as “flak.” Voice enough criticism of a news story or opinion piece, the logic holds, and perhaps next time the outlet will refrain from printing or broadcasting something similar, regardless of whether it is accurate and timely. Yet flak is not only directed at editors, publishers, administrators and advertisers. Journalists themselves are often the target of such campaigns. For example, on Dec. 25, over two months after my column was published, I received an unexpected message from Koby Nahmias of Friends of Israel sarcastically wishing me a merry Christmas while noting that I “must be proud of (my)self” and “feel good to know (I) supply terrorists with the ideology they need to in act (sic) their crimes.” The implication is of course ludicrous, but that is, again, irrelevant. The objective is the silence of those who write critically about taboo topics. If formal censorship is not possible, encouraging self-censorship becomes the goal.

So what does the First Amendment mean to me today? In the past I have had students comment romantically about how exciting it would have been to participate in the protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s. If only there were something like the Vietnam War today, the students intimated, they might finally feel inspired to become active. Well, that time is now. History is being made on the streets. Millions are opposing the Bush administration’s efforts – through lies, deceit,

multibillion-dollar bribes and a shameful abuse of the historical record – to sell a foolish and potentially disastrous war. The First Amendment ensures our right to speech and assembly. But what good is such a right if we fail to exercise it – broadly, persistently and forcefully?