Case-studies in free speech


Rarely does a fortnight see such an interesting mix of free speech-related issues.

A Nazi party rally in St. Louis, the Durban II conference, and — cringing when I say this — the Miss USA Pageant, all allow for perspectives on how best (and in the case of Miss USA, how not) to respond to speech one finds offensive.


The American Nazi Party rally down at the Gateway Arch grounds was disgustingly timed to coincide with both Hitler’s birthday and Yom HaShoah remembrances. Many will recall the attempted Nazi march in Skokie, Ill., home to many Holocaust survivors, in the late 1970s (and now home to a brand new Holocaust museum). The choice by the American Civil Liberties Union to represent the Nazis’ speech and assembly rights ripped apart its membership.

Nevertheless, the federal courts have continually affirmed the right to assemble and speak, absent words and conduct intended to incite imminent unlawful violence. (See the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio, 1969, which permitted speeches at a Ku Klux Klan rally promoting vengeance against “n-rs and Jews.”)

Last week, the primary response to the Arch ground event was the peaceful and oppositional rally held in Forest Park, miles away, to honor the constructive benefits of diversity and cultural collaboration. The release valve against hate speech was love speech, not more of the same vileness spewed by the miscreants downtown. This was an appropriate, even an ideal, response and the result was to steal attention from the hate mongers.

Now Durban II, as an international conference conducted by the United Nations, was hardly subject to U.S. Constitutional principles. But it nevertheless underscores the benefits of peaceful free speech responses, such as satire and boycott. (For the Jewish Light’s perspective on Durban II, and other free speech issues related to the conference, see this week’s editorial.)

The Durban I conference in 2001 blatantly discriminated against Jews and Israel and allowed anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic voices to predominate. As a result, when the same forces appeared to be controlling the agenda for the second conference this April, the U.S., Israel and others chose to boycott the event.

When the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stood up and condemned Israel in front of the assembled delegates, two things happened. First, protesters wearing and throwing clown noses heckled the speaker in mockery of his ignorant comments. Second, 20-plus nations walked out in protest.

These responses all highlight legitimate and reasonable rights in the face of hateful speech — the right to not listen to speech that one finds offensive, the right to speak out against such vile language, the right to oppose sham proceedings.

So two events of major seriousness, and two sets of responses that were not only correct but in fact essential. How utterly ironic, then, that the matter of least consequence – the Miss USA competition – resulted in the most inappropriate and offensive response to the expression of free speech.

An oafish blogger with the pseudonym Perez Hilton was a judge in the event. He asked Carrie Prejean, Miss California and a finalist: “Vermont recently became the fourth state to legalize same-sex marriage. Do you think every state should follow suit? Why or why not?”

Hilton was blatantly biased in asking this question; he has made a business practice of “outing” celebrities who choose to keep their sexual orientation private. One former friend of Hilton wrote about him in the online magazine Salon, “Spreading gossip is just your average pedestrian variety of immorality. Claiming that you’re doing it to further civil rights is an outright sham.”

Prejean politely indicated that she believes marriage should be between a man and a woman. Regardless of one’s personal views, this seems a perfectly acceptable, an open and honest answer about a fairly debatable issue. Yet Hilton, who later uttered epithets publicly in condemning Prejean, scored her down, causing her to lose the competition. (And, I might add, all without having one iota of knowledge about the positions of the other contestants on this issue!)

Hilton, of course, is mostly a meaningless blip in cultural history, a blowhard of immense proportions. But isn’t it pathetic that someone whose mission of outing celebs is wholly protected by the First Amendment, could not see the hypocrisy of using his stature to eviscerate Prejean for her position?

And so in the least important venue, we have the most important lesson. In our public statements our character is on parade for all to see. We should strive for honesty and strength of conviction, and should speak out against injustice and intolerance. But when our own hatred, no matter how much or how well we self-justify, becomes the sword with which to strike down others with whom we disagree, we descend far below those we oppose. That is the sad, sad lesson of Perez Hilton.