Confusing (but Free) Editorializing

The NY Times recently editorialized as follows, in a post called “Free Speech vs. Hate Speech”

There is no question that images ridiculing religion, however offensive they may be to believers, qualify as protected free speech in the United States and most Western democracies. There is also no question that however offensive the images, they do not justify murder, and that it is incumbent on leaders of all religious faiths to make this clear to their followers.

But it is equally clear that the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest in Garland, Tex., was not really about free speech. It was an exercise in bigotry and hatred posing as a blow for freedom….

The editorial is confusing for 2 reasons:

1) The title suggests that hate speech is not free speech. Generally, in the U.S., hate speech is free. The main exception is when the speech promotes imminent violence (which is an issue altogether separate from the question of hate: speech promoting violence may be motivated by something other than hate, and hateful speech often does not promote violence).

2) Marginal, but nevertheless protected, speech in the U.S. is a “blow for freedom” not because it is “about free speech” (speech about free speech is probably more likely to put people to sleep than to break any new ground or enhance freedoms), but because it is offensive or otherwise marginal. Pam Geller’s situation is an interesting one because she probably did think she was striking a “blow for freedom” because of the substance of her argument, but really she struck a blow for freedom because she put together another example of crude, bigoted behavior that is nevertheless protected in the U.S. A blow for freedom and a blow against decency and against community. Geller, and similarly, the Phelps church, help to define our freedoms by reminding us how costly our freedom is, and how we ultimately are in favor of it despite its costs. Is it worth it? In the Geller and Phelps cases no — too hateful.

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