Freedom of Expression Is Not Unlimited

01/11/2015 05:30 pm ET Updated Mar 13, 2015

Freedom of expression does not mean that anyone has the right to be heard at any time and in any forum, no matter what. There are times when lines can and must be drawn for reasons both moral and legal, but there are other times when it is inappropriate and wrong to draw such lines. Recent events in France, so terrible and tragic, have given us reason to think through yet again when freedom of expression should be limited in our country and when it should not.

David Brooks, writing on January 8 in the New York Times, points to the hypocrisy of those Americans who celebrate the journalists at Charlie Hebdo for their courage in saying offensive things but then are far less tolerant toward those who offend their own views. "It's almost always wrong to try to suppress speech, erect speech codes, and disinvite speakers," Mr. Brooks writes. The key is to be "legally tolerant" to all offensive voices, but to accord respect only to those who have earned it. In "healthy societies," according to Brooks, we listen to satirists "with bemused semirespect," while racists and anti-Semites are heard "through a filter of opprobrium and disrespect."

A little clarity is in order here. Yes, racists and anti-Semites are entitled to "legal tolerance" in a democratic society, but does this suggest an absolute right to be heard? Can racists and anti-Semites ever be denied a public platform?

The primary focus of the Brooks article is on universities, and here, Brooks gets it mostly right. The American campus is, or should be, a forum for the open exchange of ideas -- all ideas. But political correctness too often gets in the way. Any speaker who receives a legitimate invitation to speak on a university campus should be allowed by university authorities to appear and give voice to his or her beliefs, including views of the racist and anti-Semitic variety. He is also entitled to protection to deliver his remarks without disruption; after all, a right to speak is meaningless if it cannot be implemented.

Now, if a racist speech were given at my university, I would hope that the university president would publicly condemn the views expressed. Nonetheless, the speaker's right to speak should be curtailed only under the most extreme circumstances. An example: Perhaps if the speaker had incited violence in previous appearances, demanding that his audience attack demonstrators and otherwise engage in physical mayhem, there would be justification for barring him from campus. But absent egregious behavior of this specific sort, freedom of expression in a university setting should be sacrosanct.

As a rabbi, I am, of course, especially sensitive to anti-Semitic sentiments, including anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Israel rhetoric. Nonetheless, if bigots on campus choose to attack Judaism and the Jewish state, so be it. I will express my outrage while defending their rights; and generally speaking, the Jewish community has done the same. To be sure, there have been exceptions. In February of 2013 at Brooklyn College, some Jewish leaders attempted, on the flimsiest of pretexts, to silence speakers who had anti-Israel views with distinctly anti-Semitic overtones; this was a serious mistake. But most of the time the Jewish community understands that freedom of expression ultimately protects Jews and the religion that they embrace, just as it protects all Americans.

Still, what is true in the university setting is not necessarily true elsewhere. I may have to hear anti-Semites and holocaust deniers at the local university, but that doesn't mean that I have to hear them in my local synagogue. Speech codes at a university are a bad idea because universities are a place where diverse -- and extreme -- points of view are welcome. But rules for who should speak at a synagogue are appropriate because synagogues are a place for promoting Jewish values, and racists and Jew-haters traduce those values and offend those traditions. The same is true for churches, which promote Christian values, and for all the groups and clubs that bring Americans together for prayer, study, discussion, and civic activity. These too are voluntary associations that promote particular values. Of course, they may wish from time to time to widen their discussions and to include speakers and advocates with positions different from of their own. That is often healthy and wise, but the point is that limits will be determined by each group according to its own wishes and standards, and extremists can claim no right to be heard in such settings.

Similarly, racists and anti-Semites should not be granted the coverage that they seek from mainstream media outlets, such as network and cable news programs. I expect diverse points of view on the news shows that I watch, but I don't want to see David Duke promoting his ideas as a regular commentator, and neither do the overwhelming majority of Americans.

Does this mean that extremists are to be denied freedom of expression in places other than the campus? It means nothing of the sort. The racists and anti-Semites among us are entitled to stand on a soapbox in any public park and proclaim their views. And they are entitled in a free society to publish books and pamphlets containing their ideas and to disseminate their positions on websites and social media. The protections that they enjoy are considerable and must be defended at all costs. But when David Brooks rightly reminds us to end speech codes and be legally tolerant toward offensive voices, we should remember that battling those offensive voices and erecting walls against hate remain our most important task. The extremists, the racists, and the anti-Semites have rights, but they are still the enemy of a great and good America.