Edward Snowden is, according to U.S. media sources, the most wanted man on the planet, though it is worth pointing out that he is only the man on the planet most wanted by America. Pamela Geller, on the other hand, is most unwanted indeed by the UK, having been banned from entering the country and speaking at a rally organized by far-right group the English Defence League, or EDL. What Geller and Snowden share, however, is the unusual situation of their travel plans for this week being banjaxed by free speech concerns.
Snowden's name is rather more recognizable to the public ear than Geller's, even if Snowden himself has managed to remain practically invisible (despite the alleged reach and might of the U.S. security services) while sojourning in Hong Kong and Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport. Snowden's free speech case is complex: at issue is, first, whether the U.S. government can legally intercept "free speech" in electronic communications and, second, whether Snowden has a "free speech" right to demonstrate that, legally or otherwise, this is exactly what the U.S. government appears to be doing.
Geller's case is rather more simple. Her intended attendance at an EDL rally in London has been deemed by the British government as "not conducive to the public good." Both Geller and the EDL are shameless Islamophobes, hate-mongers and self-publicists. Geller most recently achieved notoriety due to posters placed by her organization, Stop the Islamization of America, on the New York subway. The posters alluded to Muslims being "savages" and urged commuters to "support Israel, defeat Jihad." Her defense to what was an obvious provocation was that this was all in the name of "free speech." The EDL are a neo-Nazi political group, a radical faction of the far-right political space. They are implicated in a spate of attacks on Mosques and Islamic community centres in the UK, following the fatal stabbing of young soldier Lee Rigby on May 22nd outside Woolwich barracks. Rigby was murdered by two assailants, one of whom claimed it was retaliation for the actions of British soldiers in Muslim countries. Quite rightly, the British Home Secretary Theresa May wrote that Geller's address to the EDL rally - in Woolwich, no less - would "foster hatred which might lead to inter-community violence". Quite predictably, Pamela Geller took this to be an attack on her "free speech."
I have an ambivalent relationship with free speech. The rights it grants -- Snowden's revelations notwithstanding -- allow me to write the words you are reading and the opinions they constitute, and they are rights which I wholeheartedly value and uphold. But I am uneasy with the idea that free speech allows me, or anyone, to incite religious or racial hatred. Hatred breeds violence, whether symbolic or actual. Inflammatory speech is calculated, by definition, to inflame. Geller's stock-in-trade is stoking some kind of ideological fire and what she really seeks is "the oxygen of publicity." Margaret Thatcher said that this is what terrorists should be starved of, and perhaps Pamela Geller should be, too.
While she is easily dismissed as a Sarah Palin-esque fringe lunatic in the U.S., in British communities -- communities where relations are already delicately balanced -- the likes of Pamela Geller can only inspire more radical ears into more radical actions. While I might find Geller repugnant, my opprobrium towards her does not extend to hatred, and neither is it particularly likely that someone is going to take matters into their own hands as a result of reading my words. I am exercising my freedom of expression, not my freedom to hate.
Freedom of expression is a fundamental component of democracy, and it should be defended. But an equally fundamental measure of democracy is having elections, and these must not just be free, but also fair. A free exchange of opinions is necessary, as is the stipulation that those opinions will (and should) differ. In liberal democracies, however, political discourse should also contain the core principle of fairness, and that involves the abjuration of violence. The American judicial philosopher Zecharaiah Chafee -- a fierce proponent of free speech -- once said that "speech should be fruitful as well as free." He also said, more memorably, that "your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man's nose begins."