Note: This post was originally written as an opinion piece for The Hoya, a Georgetown University newspaper, and published on October 26.
Mark Stern argued in his column “No Suppression of Stupidity” that Metro’s recent attempt to censor racist advertisements was a violation of free speech. The ads, sponsored by the anti-Islamic American Freedom Defense Initiative read, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”
“There is no doubt that the AFDI’s posters are offensive and ridiculous, but hatefulness and stupidity have never been cause for censorship in the United States,” Stern wrote. “It is only by protecting the speech of those whom we like least that we preserve the liberties we cherish most.”
He’s right, of course. But to leave the story at that — not to go beyond a wistful sigh that there’s nothing we can do to stop people like AFDI founder Pamela Geller from posting hateful messages in our public space — makes it seem like the victory must lie on the side of hate speech. On the contrary, many individuals and religious groups, including members of the Georgetown community, have responded to these ads exactly in the manner that First Amendment watchdogs would want: by making their own voices heard in support of love and tolerance.
It started in New York when, after these ads were posted in the subway system, people responded with vandalism. Some ads were slapped with a sticker saying “RACIST,” while others were covered in black spray paint. Then, counter-ads started to run in D.C. and New York. United Methodist Women ran an ad saying, “Hate speech is not civilized. Support peace in word and deed.” The Council on American-Islamic Relations posted a quote from the Quran: “Show forgiveness, speak for justice and avoid the ignorant.” Sojourners, a Christian organization, posted an ad stating simply, “Love your Muslim neighbors.”
Closer to home, a group of Georgetown students have been going to Metro stations and distributing flyers supporting peace. Our very own Rachel Gartner, rabbi and director of Jewish chaplaincy at Georgetown, wrote a piece for The Washington Post denouncing the ad and calling on Jewish Americans to speak out against it as an obligation of their faith. “As a rabbi, I insist on the responsibility to speak out against hateful speech,” Gartner wrote, “particularly when it comes at least in part from one of our own. Judaism teaches [that] anyone who has the ability to intervene but does not is held responsible [by God] for those sins.”
Gartner makes an important point: the First Amendment guarantees not simply a right, but also a responsibility, to speak out and take responsibility for the consequences of our speech. These ads are meant to incite fear and hatred of Muslims, equating savagery with jihad and, by extension, with Muslims. This tactic is crude, offensive and irresponsible. Anti-Islamic propaganda has real consequences for the daily lives of Muslims and non-Muslims around the country and around the world.
U.S. media rarely provide a platform to share the experiences of the Muslims who are vilified in public discourse. When the other side of the story is never told — when all we see are depictions of Muslims as terrorists intent on jihad — it becomes easy to accept racist stereotypes about who is “civilized” and who is “savage.” These attitudes creep into policy decisions just as they spur horrific hate crimes. Speech has consequences.
Censorship is not the answer. More speech is better, especially in cases such as this. It is significant that the response to these ads has overwhelmingly been one promoting love. On a topic that too often incites a squabbling match rather than meaningful debate, Jews, Christians and Muslims have refused to take the AFDI’s bait. Instead, they are using it as an opportunity to come together against intolerance. Juxtaposed with the AFDI’s ad referring to human beings as savages, the ads calling for peace, love and justice expose the AFDI ad for what it really is: racist, cynical and hateful. They shame the AFDI for dishonoring its right to free speech so egregiously.