Monday, October 23, 2006

Free Speech

I first read about a protest against the Minutemen at Columbia on Foolish Owl's blog. For those who don't know the Minutemen are an American group, who specialise in vile anti-immigration racism and have taken it on themselves to police the Mexico-US border.* The Young Republicans at Columbia had invited . Anti-racist/immigrant rights groups got together and organised a protest outside. Some people also went inside and disrupted the speech (either by unfurling a banner, or shouting the speaker down - I wasn't there, and only have dial-up so I can't watch the video - it's irrelevant to my argument).

I absolutely support and applaud this sort of protest (I've done this sort of protest, just for the record). But what I wanted to address directly was the idea that by disrupting the event (however they did it) interupted this man's right to free speech. The Happy Feminist was reasonably vocal in her disapproval:

But no it wouldn't change my analysis. You protest outside, you write scathing editorials, and you publicize the fact that the College Republicans are basically inviting a hate group onto campus. But as a matter of both tactics and ethics, disrupting the actual speech isn't right.
And to be crystal clear, no, I would not agree with shouting down a pro-life speaking or anti-feminist speaker.

It's the same principle as the Jewish ACLU lawyer who defended the right of Nazis to demonstrate in Skokie. No matter how noxious and personal and awful he found what the Nazis were saying, he still defended their right to say it.
To me the principle of freedom of speech is to stop those with power limiting the speech of those without power (particularly stopping the state limit people's freedom of speech, but I think the role of companies in limiting people's speech also comes under the same analysis). The idea that respecting freedom of speech means listening in silence while someone says something you find offensive seems ridiculous to me. All freedom of speech guarantees is the ability to speak - it doesn't mean that anyone has to listen to, or respect, what you're saying.

Shouting down a speaker isn't interfering with free speech; it is free speech.

What I find just plain weird, is that this argument is generally only applied to people who are speaking in formal settings. On Saturday the neo-nazis held their annual rally and there was a reasonably large counter protest which stopped them meeting where they wanted to meet, and shouted them down (more on that in a second). Very few people jump up and down and says a counter-demonstration is interupting the nazis freedom of speech. But when someone is an invited speaker - when they have backing by some institution, some power base then somehow they have more of a right to free speech than they do on a speech corner. That seems like the wrong way round to me. Those who are in positions of power, generally need less, not more protection against their rights being infringed.

So I have absolutely no ethical qualms in holding banners, chanting, or communicating in any way, while someone I disagree with is speaking. I exercise my freedom of speech by not being silent.

That doesn't mean I think that shouting at people is always the best tactic. The counter-demonstration againstthe neo-nazis is a time where I thought the tactics were wrong. There aren't very many neo-nazis in New Zealand, but they tend to be exactly sort of violent thugs you'd expect (two years back someone vandalised the graves of jewish people, and they attack people as well as graves).

To me, the point of protesting against neo-nazis is to make it really clear that white supremacy is not welcome. I see this message as not just for the nazis themselves, but also for everyone who walks by. But there's never any purpose to the anti-fascist demonstration except to piss the nazis off. I strongly susepct being protested against makes the nazis feel cool and important, so the counter-protest ends up being counterproductive.

I do think that we need to organise to ensure that fascists don't get a hold. But we don't do that by shouting at them. Political racism has appeal for working-class people who believe that they should be better off than they are. By saying "it's the jews/immigrants/Maori who are to blame for your situation" various groups (including mainstream political parties obviously) use racism to organise and gain support. The only response to those lies is to present what we see as the truth - to show that it is capitalism that is to blame for people's economic problems, and that it can be fought.

I didn't attend Saturday's anti-fascist demonstration. I'm sick of them, sick of the macho atmosphere, and sick of activists who seem to get their kicks by playing cops and robbers with fascist groups, as if it's the most important work in the world. There's a real macho culture to these sorts of demos, that makes me very uncomfortable.

I'm really glad I didn't go, as there seems to have been a distinct lack of political analysis at the counter-protest. "More hair than brains" may be an amusing chant towards skinheads - but actually our problem isn't with their hair cut, or their intellect. Likewise a whole crowd chant of 'Ugly, Ugly, Ugly' seems to miss the point.

But most disturbing to me was that some supposedly anti-fascist protesters shoutted "cocksuckers" and "faggots" to the nazis. Now I don't want to tarnish the entire demonstration with the misogynist homophobic actions of a few. I have a lot of friends who were at the demonstration, and I know that they would neither shout that, or stand silent while someone else chanted it. But I think it shows that my fears about a macho atmosphere are not unreasonable.

* Just for a short break and disturbing story. My sister once met someone who worked for the US border patrol at a party. When asked what he did he flipped out his badge (which he'd carried with him to Wellington, presumably to impress the girls) and said "I shoot Mexicans". Just a reminder that the Minutemen are only one of the violent racist groups on the Mexican-US border.


  1. I feel the same way. We had a group on campus last year that was strongly opposed because of it's hate speech. What did we do? Talk to people and circulate a petition saying that we as a campus would not tolerate hate speech of any kind. (I was there all day talking to people about the petition and the group and collecting signatures.)

    The people I had the most problem with were ACLUer's who said that they didn't want to limit anyone's free speech, though in the US hate speech is a crime. Funny that.

  2. "But there's never any purpose to the anti-fascist demonstration except to piss the nazis off."

    "as there seems to have been a distinct lack of political analysis at the counter-protest."

    You missed a (brief) conversation about this last night - suffice to say that while this may have been true for some of the people present, it most certainly is not accurate for those that organised the protest. I, for one, had some very specific (both short and long term) goals in mind with that protest, which seem to be well on the way to being met. I can expand on this next time I see you if you're interested (though you'll probably have to remind me).

  3. Anonymous9:02 am

    Interesting points
    But how would you feel if you as an listener at a speech and could not hear the speaker because of protest....would that be interfering with your right to hear another point of view, surely the right to free speech is really an implied right to hear other points of view
    Raymond F

  4. Anonymous10:22 am

    Just for interest/information - The minute-men that patrol the US-Mexico border are *not* officialy sanctioned by the government, and are not under US law allowed to take any direct action, violent or otherwise against anyone illegally crossing the border. They are only permitted to inform the border patrol who take action themselves.(However there have been a number of violent incidents that appear to have been tolerated by both border patrol and the police.)

    Interestingly enough there is also a smaller and less well reported group of minute-men who police the US-Canada border as well. They are typically armed with a folding chair, a thermos of coffee and a copy of the USA today, and should be considered extremely sad.

  5. Reading the Maps has an interesting article on the protest that confronted the right-wing Minutemen group.

  6. I wasn't comfortable about the disruption of the Minute-Men. What if a group decided that what you sincerely and in good faith believe was hate speech and disrupted your planned speaking event?

    It's one thing to voice your protest outside, to educate and spread your rebuttal to their ideas, it's another thing to actually get in their face and harass them while they are politely making their point.

  7. Anonymous3:26 pm

    Freedom of speach applies only to those who agree with us.

    A Hitler
    J Stalin

  8. "Shouting down a speaker isn't interfering with free speech; it is free speech."

    I don't know about you, but when I see somebody trying to make a point and having a bunch of hecklers drown him/her out with their shouting, my sympathy's all with the one trying to make a point. It may be free speech to drown somebody else out, but it's also tactically completely counter-productive.

  9. It is also an incredibly ironic stand point coming from someone who heavily moderates comments on their blog.

  10. Anonymous5:39 pm

    I agree with Maia's comments. I have on many occasions shouted people down during speechs. One of the most memorable was at the 90 day bill protest where Wayne Mapp was forced to leave the podium by the whole crowd. I have very little sympathy for those in power who oppress others, and expect to beable to justify it.

    However, I have my boundaries and nazi's are one of them. Mostly for all of the reasons Maia articulated. But also because alienation for skin heads is often shown by acts of violence. It is often not those at anti-fa demos (in welli atleast) who become their victims. Its people like my family who have been beaten up, or my friend whose house was broken in to and trashed(thankfully they weren't home), or my friend's friend who was stabbed to death in a carpark.


  11. Jose - you explain a perfect situation of why shouting down a speaker is generally a deplorable act.

    Most people I have had a reasoned discussion with over what Wayne Mapps bill was actually going to do have changed their stance from being anti the bill to at least indifferent.

    Your blinkered ideological stance to shout down what probably would have been a reasoned speech to allow people to actually make their own informed decision shows the stupidity of the action.

  12. As Raymond F refers above;
    surely the right to free speech is really an implied right to hear other points of view
    By shouting down someones speech you affect others rights to listen - and more importantly their right to decide.

    You would apparently see the situation as described in Orwell's 1984 to be ideal. No need to shout down that which is universally agreed.

  13. Anonymous3:57 pm

    I have come to believe that socailists and fasicists do not believe in free speach, although they do demand that they have the right to freedom of speach.

    If you shout down a speaker are that speaker has been denied their right to freedom of speach, and then you have then become the oppressor. This should not be all that surprising as both socalists and fascists are just diferent sides of the same coin.


  14. Anonymous11:17 pm

    the best way to deal with facists is to tell them they are unwelcome but not to make any more of a fuss than you need to to make sure they are not welcome.

    The problem is that nazis nazis laregly because of this sort of confrontation from people they hate and disproportionate fear and panic they seem to engender in those same people.

    The left can see so easily that these sorts of strategies dont work with other groups but they are suckers when it comes to nazis.


    As to the limits of free speach I think shouting poepel down is generally bad straegy unless you are actually wrong.

    Ofcourse sometimes you are wrong, and maybe it will be required for you to win the day - don't expect the otherside to be happy about it though.


  15. Anonymous3:29 am

    Oh dear. Even by the lacklustre intellectual standards of this blog, this is a ridiculous post. If a bunch of Chistians decided to shout down a lesbian speaker at a university event, would Maia still be defending this as freedom of speech? I think not. And why not, one might ask? Surely when it comes to freedom of speech - necessarily a universal right - what is good for the goose is good for the gander.

    And as for open borders - those that lose the most from illegal immigration in the US are the very working class Maia claims elsewhere to be in staunch solidarity with. They are the ones who must endure competition from people willing to work for less than the minimum wage. Open borders are great if you're a capitalist business owner; not so if you're a blue-collar worker.

  16. A wander over to Anarchia and a look at the comments thread might be instructive.

    I've actually thought the opposite 123 - when capital is mobile, it can go where it gets the best rate of return. Labour is unable to do the same.

  17. Anonymous12:35 pm

    Some capital is mobile George; but not that tied up with farm work, with the service industry, with roads and repairs, etc etc etc. These are the arenas in which wages have dropped the most in recent years in America - and that is largely because of increased competition for these jobs from illegals. Open borders benefit the rich and hurt the poor - be they Mexican or US - for they are increasingly in competition with each other...