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.