Freedom of Speech is a Two-Way Street

I was shocked when I read an Op-ed by a regular columnist of The Daily Targum, the Rutgers University student newspaper. The author proclaimed the need for a Palestine from sea to sea; that is from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. He therefore called for the complete elimination of the State of Israel, to be subsumed by a Palestinian state.

While the author had every right to express his opinion, this outrageous statement, which had genocidal implications, should have been condemned by the Rutgers University administration. Accordingly, pressure was exerted on then Rutgers University President Francis Lawrence to come out with a statement condemning the assertion made by this columnist. In response, the president sent out a letter in which he stated that even though he may disagree with the statement made by the columnist, under academic freedom and freedom of speech, the columnist had a right to his opinion.

President Lawrence did not have the backbone to even condemn the statement. This response outraged many of us and together with Alvin Rockoff, a past chair of the Rutgers' Board of Regents, we set up a meeting with President Lawrence.

While waiting to meet with him, I glanced through that day's Wall Street Journal. There was an Op-ed that described an assertion by an engineering professor at the University of Texas, that American policies were responsible for 9/11 and the thousands murdered there. The President of the University of Texas then came out with a statement in which he respected the right of that professor to express his opinion, under freedom of speech, but that he also had the right, under the same freedom, to call that professor an idiot. In showing this article to President Lawrence, he stiffened his resolve and subsequently categorically condemned The Daily Targum Op-ed piece. What an act of moral courage!

Freedom of speech is a two-way street. As Hubert Humphrey stated, "The right to be heard does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously." It is our duty to rebut outrageous statements, even as we defend the right of misguided individuals to make them.

This issue was most recently displayed in the controversy surrounding the publication of a "news story" in the Swedish daily Aftonbladet, which "reported" that IDF soldiers stole organs of Palestinians during the Gaza War and used them to "harvest profits." This story was completely inaccurate and even denied by the Palestinian family cited in the article. But it reinforced the medieval blood libel: that we use the blood of non-Jews for rituals or pecuniary purposes. But when the Swedish government was asked to condemn this outrageous accusation by the Israelis, it hid behind the mantle of protecting freedom of speech.

George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw

"Liberty means responsibility, that is why most men dread it," George Bernard Shaw reminds us. The Swedish government is evading its responsibility, as did Yale University Press. It refused to reprint Danish cartoons caricaturing the prophet Mohammed in a book written by Brandeis University Professor Jytte Klausen on the political controversy ensuing from the publication of these cartoons. While I don't approve of satirizing a religious figure, how can a history of this controversy, which resulted in the death of innocents, be understood without publishing the offending cartoons? Offensive graphics and cartoons played a critical role in portraying Jews as vermin in the 1930's. A harbinger of the Holocaust. Would Yale University not publish these cartoons, as many other publications have? As Cary Nelson, the president of the American Association of University Professors stated in describing Yale University Press' position, "We do not negotiate with terrorists, we just accede to their anticipated demands."

George Bernard Shaw is right. Where there is freedom, there is also responsibility, and that applies to all of us, too. We all have the responsibility to respond to inaccurate, inhumane, even hateful speech. We have the responsibility to answer it. Because the government protects freedom of speech for everyone, it cannot protect us from speech that offends us and our values, speech that offends our understanding of the truth. It is up to us to have a sense of our responsibility, and to show the courage of our convictions by condemning the statements that people are free to make but that are outrageous. It is our responsibility to defend the truth by speaking up. Only by being vigilant and responsible do we earn the right to our freedoms.

Freedom of speech is a cherished mainstay of our democracy, to be exercised freely but also responsibly by all sectors of our society. It's a two-way street where the outrageous can be countered with the sensible.

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