The tension between free speech and hate speech is already on display in the Middle East. Now it’s come to the New York City subway system. An ad campaign branding Muslims as “savages” has gone on display. Wisely, courts have resisted censorship. But the subway ads have had at least one positive effect: They’ve brought together many Jewish and Islamic groups in criticizing the campaign.
Pamela Geller of the anti-Islamic group known as the American Freedom Defense Initiative won a court case over the summer defending the posters as free speech. They include the slogan “In Any War Between the Civilized Man and the Savage, Support the Civilized Man,” surrounded by images of the Star of David. Some Muslim activists, including Egyptian-American commentator Mona Eltahawy, urged their supporters to deface the posters. But defacing public property is illegal, and is the wrong way to fight back.
The right way is for opponents of the posters to express their own views in ways that make clear where the broader sentiment lies. And many influential Jewish groups have joined a chorus of objections. Significantly, they include the New York office of the conservative Anti-Defamation League, which has called the ads “highly offensive and inflammatory.”
Geller may have achieved her goal of irritating Muslims. But she’s irritated many others, as well. Cruel expression cuts both ways. Her right to advertise her views must be defended, but so too must the rights of others to condemn her.