Columnist Arrested In New York While Trying To Spray Paint Over Anti-Muslim Poster

The video below has attracted considerable interest in the latest confrontation over an anti-Muslim ad campaign in the New York subway system. Many people have objected to the campaign by the American Freedom Defense Initiative which has put up signs reading “In any war between civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” However, columnist Mona Eltahawy who appears regularly on CNN and MSNBC took that opposition to a new level in this confrontation with a woman who tried to stop her from spray painting over one of the signs — an act that led to Eltahawy’s arrest. The incident involved a sharp difference of opinion on what constitutes protected freedom of speech.

The signs themselves led a court to reject a challenge to the campaign and order that the signs be posted as an exercise of free speech. I agree with that decision. Like most free speech advocates, I prefer to have such controversial views posted than to have the government engage in content-based regulation of speech.

That leads us to the recent confrontation. In the video below, Eltahawy insists that she is doing nothing but exercising her free speech rights in a non-violent protest. Pamela Hall challenges her with a camera and asks “Mona, do you think you have the right to do this?” Eltahawy responds by saying “I do actually. I think this is freedom of expression, just as this is freedom of expression.”

I am afraid that I have to disagree. Destroying a sign is an effort to keep others from speaking. It is the very antithesis of free speech. Throughout the ages, governments and majoritarian groups have torn down the signs and prevented the expression of unpopular groups or individuals. Eltahawy’s position is akin to saying censorship is the triumph of free speech in that it expresses an opposing view. If this were the case, any act of harassment and intimidation would be an act of free speech. It would make forced silence the ultimate triumph of free speech.

Notably, before the incident, Eltahawy reportedly tweeted to her fans: “Meetings done; pink spray paint time. #ProudSavage.”

None of this has anything to do with the merits of the campaign. The content of the speech does not matter. This is not a means used for free expression; it is the denial of free expression. For a prior column, click here. Ironically, her conduct has distracted the public debate over the content of the campaign, which was receiving considerable criticism. She has now given the sponsors the status of victim and compelled many to rally around the free speech rights of those sponsors.

Her lawyer is pushing the free speech angle but that will have little traction in an actual court of law. As a journalist, Eltahawy’s actions are doubly wrong and frankly reprehensible. The cure to statement view as “bad speech” is more speech — not trying to silence your opponent. Eltahawy was trying to keep others from reading the message as her form of free speech expression. That rather twisted view of free speech would leave only speech that is allowed by the majority. Indeed, it would deny speech opposed by any minority with each group tearing down or covering up message deemed wrong or offensive. It is the type of inverse logic denounced by Adlai Stevenson: “A hypocrite is the kind of politician who would cut down a redwood tree, then mount the stump and make a speech for conservation.” Free speech cannot be the basis for preventing the speech of others.

79 thoughts on “Columnist Arrested In New York While Trying To Spray Paint Over Anti-Muslim Poster”

  1. The problem, if the scenario was reversed, and Arabs posted posters, they would be met with outcries with screams and call of anti-semitism ( as if Arabs are not Semites ) and get all kind of jewish organizations on their backs with all their legal defenses – not freedom of speech.

  2. How do you turn a muslim into a radical, put a poster in the subway, make a anti islamic picture, make a cartoon of mohammed with his hair looking like a bomb, or write a book.

  3. Thank you, Professor Turley, for keeping the First Amendment torch lit. Every single day I see more and more evidence of Americans who not only have no idea what the First Amendment means, they are will to discard it on the basis of political expediency.

  4. Martingugino, try: “If you spray paint your name I feel I have the right to spray over it. Yeah, Graffiti Bitti Bo Shmeetee banana fana fobanna, me my own message, Yeah Yeah.”

  5. Bob you say “During the Vietnam war, some activists poured blood on draft-board records.Not free speech. Vandalism.”
    This was beyond both speech and vandalism – this interfered with the governmental operations, with the capability of the state to corral men and train them to kill other men far away who wanted to be free.
    I hate to see their wonderful work so minimize.

  6. The grafiti question raises another: if you have the right to spray your name, do I have the right to paint over it? I feel that yea you do, laissez faire.

  7. Roger Lambert; you bring in the subject of graffiti. While they get away with it, it is not because of any legal argument. I think that the “free speech” aspect of graffiti is largely and unfortunately skipped over, most likely because the poor cannot afford a cadre of lawyers to push that aspect before legislative bodies. How wrong is grafiti on highway bridges – and why?

  8. Kraaken you say “This shouldn’t be a case of first amendment rights, this should be a simple case of vandalism.”
    I say it is always wrong to dismiss the human rights aspect of a case in favor of the property rights aspect. Like it or not, acceptable or not, this action is speech as much as black armbands are speech. The issue is does it interfere with another’s speech, which is the primary problem, not the “vandalism”. It may be vandalism, as at other times trespassing is put up for your consideration. Is this an abuse of freedom of speech is the question, not is this speech. It is not a lie, a fraud, or commercial. It is political expression.

  9. Bob, you say: “Free speech is supposedly free of consequences.”
    Not everyone thinks so. Read paragraph 2 of the California Constitution (or equally article 1 section 8 of NYState) “Every person may freely speak, write and publish his or her sentiments on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of this right.”

  10. Free speech is supposedly free of consequences. Vandalism can be called free speech, but it’s vandalism, and you rightly go to jail for it.
    During the Vietnam war, some activists poured blood on draft-board records. Not free speech. Vandalism. They knew they’d go to jail for it. They were willing to do the time.
    Every time there’s a police-involved shooting in Oakland, vandals go out and break windows, often torch cars of people who have no involvement.
    Free speech? Nah.

  11. Pamela Hall challenges her with a camera and asks “Mona, do you think you have the right to do this?” Eltahawy responds by saying “I do actually. I think this is freedom of expression, just as this is freedom of expression.”
    I think, therefore, I am.

  12. ElsieDL,

    Thanks for pointing out her position as the Econonist says on the Arab “leadership”.

    To which I add. Arabs, if more than 3 can not agree on anything than it is Israel’s fault.

    Cam that failing be counterposed against an assembly of 9 jewish men, who seldom agree on key issues of discussion.

    Ah me. We Christians have much to be proud of.
    We were the first to torture and slaughter our dissidents. Eh?

  13. Interesting action from an Egyptian woman with a pretty impressive journalistic resume as well as a pretty daring critic of both the deposed Egyptian dictator and the Muslim Brotherhood. She is certainly not fond of her male Muslim counterparts. It’s still vandalism in my mind. The Economist in 2009 credited Eltahawy with coining the phrase “the opium of the Arabs”, referring to “an intoxicating way for [Arab leaders] to forget their own failings or at least blame them on [Israel]. Arab leaders have long practice of using Israel as a pretext for maintaining states of emergency at home and putting off reform.”[9] (copied quote from Wikipedia).

    I like her stance on Arab leaders very much. I hope she’ll continue her work in addressing that issue. Just keep spray cans out of her reach.

  14. Lotta,

    I am not sure that the ad people or the Israelis can make that distinction either. No proof. Who has proof of anything nowadays?

    But get upset by the hate speech? Naw. Wait until I hire a space. And I will defend it with an AK-47 or a copy of the Constitution. There is probably an ordinance against free speech on MTA and BART.

  15. Mskeover is the call. Does that mean photoshopped.
    The bus ad appears to be photoshopped. The decal seems to be sharper than the ad in terms of focus-

  16. Jihad is a Muslim activity and i bet the people designing the sign (if it was done by a professional group) knew the distinction between the activity and Muslims in general would be lost on much of the low-information viewers. The sign paints Israel in the light of civilized people and those that wage Jihad as savages. This is a deliberately inflammatory sign that plays on the fear of ‘blood-thirsty Muslims’ that wage Jihad against Israel, non-Muslims and even the people of New York (911). It’s propaganda conflating civilized people with Israel and others that do not support Israel with less than civilization. That is an offensive sign to me, I am not a Zionist supporter and I am by most measures civilized and non-violent.

    We make much about the freedom of speech being a two-way street, you can say what you want but I can saw in reply that you or, even better, that your ideas are ridiculous and then tell you why. I have seen opinions turn into fist fights, it happens. It’s a low order of debate but it exists. This was IMO a fist-fight and the downside for Elthaway was about the same no matter what she did in response. The upside was more publicity for the issue so in that regard she made a good political decision.

    Subway posters are meant to be placed in sign holders, if you stick signage on the adjacent wall or over the sign or deface the sign I suspect that the same charge of vandalism could be brought. She had no more downside for defacing the sign than any other form of paper-based protest. If the charge is more than simple vandalism though I would wonder about the political aims of the prosecutor.

    When it comes to written material is not burning an offending tract also free speech? Is it not fair game to burn bibles and Korans in the same bucket along with a copy of the UN charter, the bill of rights, a Chinese flag and a skin-head manifesto?

    The original statement was political as was the response. I don’t see a problem with calling both acts free political speech. I’m in Eltahawy’s camp on this one, it was free political speech.

    She’s not the only one with protest in mind regarding the signs, check out the pics:

    And from San Francisco where the same ads are running on buses (click on small photo 3d down):

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