In America Hate Speech Rightly Is Free Speech

05/04/2015 03:42 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2016

"First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.

"Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.

"Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds."

--John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859

From Europe With Hate

Geert Wilders, a member of the Dutch parliament and the head of the far-right Dutch Freedom Party, keynoted the Garland, Texas, Muhammad Art Exhibit & Contest that was targeted by terrorist gunfire Sunday. He has been the target of violent, radical Salafists for many years. He titled his 2012 autobiography Marked for Death and has been under police guard for over a decade, after producing a controversial short film, Fitna. The Anti-Defamation League has stated that Wilders has "advanced a conspiratorial anti-Muslim agenda for many years."

In 2013 he was featured in al-Qaeda's Inspire magazine's list of 11 individuals "wanted dead or alive for crimes against Islam," with the copy "Yes we can: A bullet a day keeps the infidel away. Defend Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him." Others on the list included American journalist Molly Norris; Quran-burning Florida pastor Terry Jones; Charlie Hebdo publisher Stéphane Charbonnier, who was later murdered in the terrorist attack on his publication's office; and author Salman Rushdie.

As I wrote in 2010:

Wilders ... has called Muslims and the Koran an extreme threat to society. At a recent Florida lecture he allegedly said Europe was on "the verge of collapsing" due to Muslims. He also smears "Islam is not a religion...Islam is a totalitarian ideology." Comparing the Koran to Mein Kampf, he reportedly told an audience: "The Koran is a book that calls for hatred, violence, murder, terrorism, war and submission" and urged a forced assimilation contract, a ban on new mosques and a closure of Muslim schools. The radical Muslim counter protestors didn't score any points for tolerance either, waving signs saying "Islam Will Dominate the World" and calling for Wilder's death.

During his current trip to the United States, he was to meet with two Republican congressmen and speak before Pamela Geller's American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), which organized the Texas event and also protested a pro-Islam conference held at the same location in January, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. Various civil-rights groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, have criticized Wilders and his compatriots for anti-Muslim bigotry.

Over recent years violent attacks and plots against critics of Islam and Muslims in Europe and the United States have left over a dozen dead and led to others being forced into hiding or under constant police protection. One of Sunday's two dead shooters, Elton Simpson, 30, an Illinois-born convert to Islam from Phoenix, had been convicted of making false statements to the FBI in 2010 as they investigated his plans to travel to Somalia. He reportedly made Internet postings supportive of ISIS, and his act in Texas was celebrated by radical extremists.

Hatemonger, Free-Speech Advocate, or Both?

Pamela Geller, 56, a self-described free-speech advocate and outspoken Islamophobe who spins wild, hateful conspiracy theories about Muslims and President Obama, is the founder of AFDI (also known as Stop Islamization of America, or SIOA) and the website Atlas Shrugs. She bristles at being called anti-Muslim, telling CNN this morning, "I'm anti-jihad," and complaining that the media does not properly address mass atrocities committed by Muslims. She has also said, "Islam is the most anti-Semitic, genocidal ideology in the world."

Hussein Ibish, an award-winning commentator on interfaith relations, has stated:

Pamela Geller is without question one of the most enthusiastic purveyors of hate speech in the United States.... Of course the appropriate response to hate speech is constructive speech, but organizations that are or wish to be respectable have an obligation not to treat hate speech as legitimate contributions to our national conversation. They are not.

As I wrote in 2012:

Geller, a stylish, media savvy commentator and author has achieved international notoriety for her blog, media appearances, and speaking engagements that relentlessly pursue the theme of Islamic domination of the United States and elsewhere. She also promotes the theme that America is being corrupted by an evil President Obama, bent on following the nefarious religious agenda of Muslim overlords. An organization that she reinvigorated with Robert Spencer, Stop Islamization of America (SOIA) was declared a hate group in 2010 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a designation each vigorously opposes. Among the group's works are protesting mosques, buying bus ads urging Muslims to abandon their faith, and opposing the imposition of Sharia law in the United States.

Her website Atlas Shrugs, has unleashed the contentions that:

  • President Obama is the illegitimate child of Malcolm X,
  • had a sexual affair with a "crack whore",
  • "wants jihad to win",
  • he was not born in the United States,
  • he never repudiated his Muslim faith,
  • and that the raid on the bin Laden compound was carried out by a coup over the President's refusal.

Geller wrote on her blog:

The media can spin their subjugation and adulation a million different ways, but America did not vote for a "Muslim presidency," which is what this is. Everything this president has done so far has helped foster America's submission to Islam.

However, what catapulted Geller firmly into mainstream notoriety was her exploitation of the unpopular proposal to build an Islamic Center in downtown Manhattan, which she maintained was a Ground Zero trophy "victory" mosque:

I'll call it a monster mosque too. It is. It is. And you cannot discount or avoid the fact that it is an Islamic pattern to build triumphal mosques on the cherished sites of conquered lands. Now you could say to me, "Do you really believe that this?" I am telling you that is how it will be perceived in the Muslim world, period. What one schmuck on Broadway thinks is irrelevant. It will be iconic to the jihad. It will be the icon, it will be the icon.

A central theme to her anti-Islamic views is the position that true Islam today is a homogenous political enterprise bent on applying Sharia law to dominate and oppress non-Muslims in both Europe and the United States. As she told the New York Times:

And I don't think that many westernized Muslims know when they pray five times a day that they're cursing Christians and Jews five times a day. I don't think they know that....Oh, I believe in the idea of a moderate Muslim. I do not believe in the idea of a moderate Islam.... I think a moderate Muslim is a secular Muslim.

She was cited approvingly one dozen times in the 1500 page Islamophobic manifesto of accused Norway massacre killer Andres Brevick.

Despite all this, Geller has a mainstream presence. However, as I wrote in 2012:

[I]t would be wrong to merely suggest that bombast and style are solely responsible for her successful mainstream incursions. Like Glenn Beck, David Duke and Jesse Helms, her routine invocation of actual facts and events, are done in such a way as to cast the widest conspiratorial net and invoke the greatest fear possible.

Moreover, to her supporters, she has credibility, because she posts actual information, albeit with vitriol and without context, that the mainstream media often ignores. What makes Geller a hate provocateur is not her criticism of the real violence perpetrated by some Muslim extremists, like the ones who violently attacked her venue, but her homogeneous vitriol that unrelentingly paints Islam as evil, along with any who authentically adhere to it. As someone once said, "A half-truth is the most cowardly of lies."

In a Battle to the Bottom, Terrorists Still Trump Haters

What separates Geller from the terrorists who attacked her venue is not hate but violence. In the United States the Supreme Court has, over recent decades, fully protected the expression of viewpoints that are offensive, bigoted and even provocative as long as they do not constitute a genuine threat. Funeral protestors, homophobes, flag burners, anti-Semites, and Geller do not, and should not, need government approval to hawk their hateful wares in the marketplace of ideas, nor do we need to buy it. I am far more concerned about terrorists, as well as religious, government, and academic institutions, limiting my right to free speech than I am about the purveyors of hate exercising theirs.

Offense Is Still Not a Defense

Geller and her compatriots may very well be irresponsible hate provocateurs who incite radicals, but they are not terrorists. White House spokesperson Josh Earnest, commenting from aboard Air Force One today, was spot on:

We have seen extremists try to use expressions that they considered to be offensive as a way to justify violence not only in this country but around the world, and in the mind of the president there is no form of expression that would justify an act of violence.

New York City Muslim advocate Linda Sansour told comedian Dean Obeidallah that Geller can "draw any damn cartoon she wants and I defend her right to do so. I have always fought for her right to be a bigot and I have the right to counter her bigotry with my own speech." I couldn't agree with her more. As thoroughly disgusting and hurtful as I may find Geller's views to be, she is totally correct that neither governments nor bullets nor bombs should block access to her ignorance or our right to publicly repudiate it -- or perhaps even ignore it -- for the hate that it is.