Is vandalism an appropriate free speech response to hate speech? - updated 10/8/12

Sheila Musaji

Posted Oct 8, 2012      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Is vandalism an appropriate free speech response to hate speech?

by Sheila Musaji

On TAM, we have published a number of articles on the current controversy over a series of ads being published in public spaces across the country by the hate groups AFDI/SIOA.  These articles include many sources and references regarding discussion of different aspects of this controversy:

- Pamela Geller: A Tale of Two Bus Ads
- A Tale of Three Bigoted Ads
- AFDI/SIOA Bus Ads Inspired by Ayn Rand’s Racist Views of Arabs and Muslims?
- Pamela Geller & Robert Spencer announce new “Islamorealism” anti-Islam ad
- 17,000+ “Islamic terrorist” attacks exist only in fevered Islamophobic brains
- The origins of the term “Islamophobia”
- Bus Ads: Of Savages and Idiots
- 17,000+ “Islamic terrorist” attacks exist only in fevered Islamophobic brains
- Freedom of speech does not include freedom from condemnation of that speech
- Pamela Geller Does Not Understand Freedom of Speech
- American Muslims and Arabs respond to the ads.
- All extremists are “savages” and “civilized men” need to counter the hate
- How Muslims understand the term “jihad”
- Is vandalism an appropriate free speech response to hate speech? .
- The legal battle over AFDI/SIOA Anti-Muslim Ads
- American Jews Are Speaking Out Against Anti-Muslim Ads - AFDI/SIOA Roll Out 9 More Anti-Muslim Ads 
- Americans support tolerance and reject hate about the ads being placed by Rabbis for Human Rights, Sojourners, and United Methodist Women.

These ads are clearly hate speech, and they are also clearly protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.  Countering the message of the ads is important.  How to counter that message is also important.

The article on the Muslim and Arab response to date listed existing efforts at reasonable, and appropriate efforts to use our free speech to counter the hateful message of these ads. There is a subway ad twitter campaign, a campaign to ask public officials to denounce the ads, and a campaign to have individuals peacefully stand next to the ads with signs objecting to the message and/or quietly handing out fliers.  There have been many previous creative responses, for example Muslims carrying signs.  There have also been numerous articles written condemning the ads and pointing out why they are hateful.  All of these are reasonable, well thought through, and have a possibility of changing hearts and minds.

It is perfectly reasonable to both disagree with, or even condemn the speech of another, and at the same time defend their right to engage in such speech. It is perfectly reasonable to ask an individual to consider the possible implications of hate speech. It is perfectly reasonable to defend freedom of speech, and yet make a judgement that some speech is not socially acceptable, even though it is legal. It is perfectly reasonable to debate possible limitations on free speech. It is also perfectly reasonable to carry out peaceful protests against hateful speech.

It is not perfectly reasonable to carry out intimidation, illegal activities, or violence in response to hate speech.  Such acts are immoral, and illegal and also deserve condemnation and prosecution. 

There are times when individuals make a conscious decision to engage in active civil obedience, knowing that this will most likely lead to their arrest. Most often this is done in the hopes of raising an important issue and bringing it to public attention. For example, last August, a group of clergy engaged in such a legitimate act of civil disobedience in Washington, D.C. Here is part of the description of what happened, by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, one of the participants:

... On the afternoon of July 28, for half an hour under the great dome of the U.S. Capitol, along with 10 others I prayed, sang, spoke out—against the travesty of Congressional and Presidential kowtowing to the hyper-wealthy and the largest corporations in the world—and then was arrested on behalf of the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the squeezed middle-class, the victims of war and the wounded Earth itself.

I am joyful that Rev. Bob Edgar, former six-term Congressman from Pennsylvania, former head of the National Council of Churches, a recipient of The Shalom Center’s “Prophetic Voices” honor, now head of Common Cause, invited us to gather. On 24 hours’ notice, 11 of us came prepared to be arrested. Dozens more came to support and affirm our insistence that the present debates about the budget and the debt ignore the deepest teachings of our faith.

I am joyful that Methodists and Presbyterians, Mennonites and Roman Catholics, folk from the United Church of Christ and Interfaith Worker Justice, clergy and laity, women and men, African-Americans and Euro-Americans, were among the 11 along with me.

I am joyful that Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, came to spend more than an hour with us and to speak in strong support of us, even though he could not himself take part in civil disobedience because he was committed to lead gatherings of Jewish leaders that afternoon. They themselves were coming to approach members of Congress on behalf of meeting the needs that Torah and all of Jewish experience teach us that governments need to meet. ... When one policewoman read us the first of three warnings that must precede the arrest, I thanked her for their courtesy and then added, “As police officers, you must enforce the law. And you are also citizens, and I hope that you too will join us to speak on behalf of the hungry and the homeless, against those who now control this Capitol.”

And to all our readers: May you do the same, in the Name of that Unity Who under many different names calls us to pursue justice by just means. Now more than ever, as the Hasidim teach, it is from the deepest dark that new light rises. ...

In 1967, Muhammad Ali was arrested for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. He serve his time and was additionally not allowed to fight for four years. The Constitution Center calls Ali’s decision and the subsequent Supreme Court decision courageous and notes

After the court announced its decision, reporters asked Ali if he intended to recover damages from his three-year exile from boxing.

“No. They only did what they thought was right at the time. I did what I thought was right. That was all. I can’t condemn them for doing what they think was right,” he said.

The Supreme Court decision happened when the court of public opinion was turning against the Vietnam War. That led many former detractors to look at Ali in a different light.  In an article earlier this year in the Chicago Law Bulletin, Michael I. Spak, a military law professor at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, said Ali’s case set a precedent in conscientious objector cases.

This year, Muhammad Ali was honored with the National Constitution Center’s 2012 Liberty Medal.

The day before yesterday, Mona Eltahawy was arrested in NYC for vandalizing one of the AFDI/SIOA ads in the subway with a can of spray paint.  Four other people were arrested that day for defacing the ads at other locations.

This whole incident was caught on tape due to an interesting intersection of events.  Muslim activists had been asked to come out and quietly protest and hand out leaflets next to the hate ads.  Pamela Geller had posted an appeal to her readers to tweet her if they saw any activity in protest, or if they heard about any such plans, and to counter such protests.  The press, of course was aware of both of these efforts as well as the amount of publicity already stirred up by the ads and their content.  The ads are posted at only 10 locations in NYC - so it is not surprising at all that the press, a Geller supporter, and a protester were in the same place at the same time, especially when the protester, Mona Eltahawy, sent out a tweet beforehand that she was on her way to that specific location with a can of pink spray paint.

The Post article on the event includes a video which shows that she did use a can of pink spray paint to deface the sign, and a woman named Pamela Hall (who is a Geller supporter) tried to stop her.

Some are claiming that Mona purposefully spray painted Hall, and Hall says that she is filing charges for assault. However, in watching the video, it seems clear that Hall kept putting herself between Mona and the ad, and also actually used the tripod of her camera to shove Mona. I am certain that the police will be able to use the video to get to the bottom of what actually happened, and the Post reporter was an eye witness.

Of course Geller has already posted an article with her usual over the top description of this event calling Eltahawy an “Islamic supremacist”, a “fascist thug”, “criminal behavior and fascism”. Vandalizing a poster with spray paint is not exactly equal to “fascism” in any reasonable persons mind.

That being said, actual vandalism or destruction of property is illegal, and any reasonable person should know that if they do such a thing, and are caught, they will be arrested.  The content of the ad is hateful, but it is legal, and the ad poster was paid for by AFDI/SIOA, so it is their property.

Mona Eltahawy believed that she was engaging in “freedom of expression”, and she seemed truly surprised that she was being arrested.  In fact, she asked the police more than once “why” she was being arrested.  She should not have been surprised.  Free speech when carried out through vandalism is an illegal act, and will result in arrest.  If you engage in such acts, then you need to be prepared to face the consequences.  No one should engage in any form of civil disobedience unless they are prepared to face the legal consequences, and in fact, like Rabbi Waskow, to face those consequences “joyfully”. 

The purpose of any act of civil disobedience is to raise awareness, and to bring about a positive change.  In this case, Eltahawy was responding to hate speech.  However, any activist should carefully consider before engaging in any such activity, whether or not such an activity will actually help or hurt the cause you profess.

There have already been hundreds of articles written, many of them using this as “proof” of what they see as Muslim disregard for the law, and reading through the comments under many of these makes it clear that the effect that this particular form of protest has had is to antagonize the haters, NOT to cause them to think about why this ad is hateful, and perhaps reconsider their prejudices.  Clearly, this act, no matter how well-intentioned, did not help to get out a positive message in response to the hate ads.

This particular act also took attention away from all of the peaceful protestors and their message countering the hate speech.

Looking at the three examples of civil disobedience I have described here, they seem very different to me. 

If the ads come to a city near me, I plan to turn up as often as possible holding one of these creative signs created by Ibn Percy who has corrected this hateful ad:  

UPDATE 10/8/2012

The ads are now coming to Washington, D.C.  Nathan Lean has posted an appeal Don’t deface anti-Muslim Metro ads with which I completely agree.  In that article he notes

...  D.C. passersby aggravated by the inflammatory language of these advertisements — which distorts the way most Muslims understand “jihad” by conflating a fraction of violent extremists with the entire faith group — must respond. But not with canisters of spray paint or magic markers or stickers. Those reactions only feed the attention-seeking provocateurs. Instead, this hate speech must be countered with an overwhelming societal refrain that emphasizes peace and pluralism, and condemns the divisive rhetoric of these bullies with alternative public messages that are forceful and clear.

...  It is incumbent that those who value a more equitable and just world join this chorus and express their disapproval of the denigration of Muslims in our society. Speaking out publicly against this racism du jour — to family, friends, neighbors, faith groups, educational communities and co-workers — is a necessary and meaningful first step.

Volunteering with interfaith groups that work to promote pluralistic values, befriending Muslim acquaintances and learning about each other’s beliefs, and tuning out the voices that sow discord and division are also positive remedies.

Subway ads, anti-Muslim films, crude caricatures of sacred religious figures, and other prejudicial paroxysms of this generation of bigots will come and go. Responding with actions that foster lasting relationships and a sense of peace and goodwill are far more effective than temporary defacements that will only last as long as these anti-Muslim ads are on display.