Bleich: Racist Speech

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Commentator Erik Bleich is Professor of Political Science at Middlebury
College. He’s recently written a book that examines the twin struggles
preserving Freedom and combating racism in the U.S. and Europe.

The recent attack in Norway that killed 77 people reminds us that
Islamists have no monopoly on perpetrating deadly acts. They can also be
carried out by people who believe that Muslims are a threat to European
and American societies.

From Koran-burning pastors to
Congressional hearings on Muslims and Homeland Security, we are
witnessing the growth of Islamophobia in the United States and Europe.
And not all Islamophobia should be protected speech.

Freedom of
speech is one of the most important values we have. Without it, we could
not openly challenge received wisdoms or mobilize for political change.
Any government action limiting this freedom has to be viewed with a
skeptical eye. At the same time, free speech is not the only important
value in society. We also cherish personal security, public order, human
dignity, and tolerance. Citizens face a tough situation when the desire
to protect free speech collides with these other values. We have to ask
ourselves how much freedom we should grant to racists. This issue is
particularly relevant to Vermonters, because our motto, "Freedom and
Unity," suggests that both values are paramount in our state.

everyone agrees that when speech directly incites violence, it must be
punished. The more difficult cases involve instances of racism that do
not rise to that level. The Norwegian murderer Anders Behring Breivik
was nourished by websites laced with statements about the dangers of
Islam. Some of these bloggers’ assertions are very close to anti-Muslim
or anti-Arab statements that have generated prosecutions and sometimes
convictions of high profile European politicians, and even of public
figures like Brigitte Bardot.

Punishing egregious racism can
serve a purpose not only when words incite violence. It may also be
necessary when racism incites fear and hatred that turn people against
one another. Governments have the responsibility to protect their
citizens and their societies by using the law to signal the difference
between debate and demonization.

Almost all European societies
allow for these kinds of punishments. The United States stands alone in
permitting even the most rabid racist statements.

Given the
current context of heightened tensions, countries need to intervene to
establish the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Branding Muslims as
"invaders" or "violent" or "a cancer" does not contribute to the common
good; instead, it undermines it.

Naturally, the same logic
applies to radical Islamist speech. Incitement to hatred undermines
human dignity and social harmony no matter what its source.

freedom in the name of fighting racism is fraught with risks.
Governments may clamp down on speech that is not truly dangerous.
Critiques of Islam are valuable parts of the public debate, just as are
critiques of Catholicism, Evangelicalism, or secularism. Most outrageous
statements are best countered by more speech, rather than by
restricting speech. But the attack in Norway reminds us of where
virulent racism can lead.

We are not living in the world of the
1930s today. But it’s our responsibility to make sure that we never wake
up in that world again.

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