Bite Their Tongue: Perhaps Unrestricted Free Speech Isn’t Such a Good Thing

A guestpost from FoJS, Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman

I, like most children of liberal Jewish parents born on the coasts, have long held the first amendment to the constitution to be sacrosanct: just barely below the 10 commandments and slightly higher than a hot pastrami with brown mustard. It is that important. And it was the 1st Amendment ‘Freedom of Speech’ that was always the most cherished of those rights.

But recent events have started to make me question this deep-seated belief. I’ve started to consider whether maybe it’s time we restricted free speech. Let me explain.

I have always thought that the free, unfettered exchange of opinions and ideas was what made America so great: it spawned great writers and thinkers, let creativity and individuality flourish, and is essential to that other great freedom that makes the United States so great for Judaism, the freedom of religion. And of course, those kinds of healthy exchanges of ideas and beliefs, the disagreements of opinion that are critical to the argy-bargy of political life, those are fine. I’m not talking about those.

I’m talking about hate speech.

I first thought about this when reading about an English Premier League soccer player who collapsed on the pitch a year ago; an ignorant racist fan took to twitter and said all the ugly things that ignorant racists do. And Britain gave him 56 days in jail. At first I thought: how can they do that? Thinking about it a few days later, I asked a different question: why don’t we do that?

The incident reminded me of something that I attempt to ignore quite frequently, and I’m guessing you do it too: there’s a lot of really horrible stuff on the internet. From trolls in the comments of your favorite websites to twitter hashtags of despicable hate, I find myself stumbling upon things online I don’t want or need to see. So fine, you say. Don’t read it; move along to another webpage. Don’t read the comments at the bottom of an article on Israel. It isn’t hurting anyone.

Except that it is. Speech is power. Regular, frequent hate speech makes people think such speech is normal, or acceptable. It validates racism and the idiots that spew it. It makes the internet less safe for those of us who want to have real dialogue about serious things. Internet hate speech is like the busted car alarm shrieking over your nice lunchtime conversation- it overpowers everything and ruins the discussion until you just pack up and leave. If I wanted to follow the NBA Finals on twitter, for instance, I have to navigate these tweets about the little boy who sang the Star Spangled Banner. Man, can’t I just go online and read about LeBron versus Tim Duncan?

Hate speech empowers acts of hate. It is for exactly that reason that Germany bans symbols, language or imagery around the Nazis, England has made hate speech a crime, and French Jewish students have sued Twitter for not restricting a recent hashtag, #unbonjuif (‘a good jew’) in which the sentences were completed ‘… a dead jew’, or ‘a burned Jew’, or worse.

Speech, when used for ill, can lead to people doing bad things. American law already recognizes this too: ‘incitement to riot’ is punishable by up to one year in jail. Using hateful speech in conjunction with another criminal act (violence, vandalism, etc.) can trigger additional penalties as part of nearly nation-wide hate crime legislation.

However, both of these examples assumes that taking to twitter and calling someone a racist name is permitted ‘freedom of expression’, while doing it and then punching them in face is a racially motivated crime. It also assumes that racially abusing someone online is harmless, when in reality, it actually restricts free speech: it intimidates religious minorities and people of color, and potentially pushes us out of the conversation in favor of those who say and think whatever they want, no matter how scary or inappropriate it may be.

The freedom to advocate religiously-based hatred played a role in radicalizing the Tsarnaev brothers to attack the Boston marathon. The internet has been a breeding ground for Islamic extremism and White supremacist groups since forever: the ADL and Southern Poverty Law Center have devoted great resources to keeping an eye on these and other hate-speech aficionados. But in all of these scenarios, you can spout whatever anti-gay anti-black whatever, until whenever. But if one, or ten people read your posts and decide to bomb a church or beat up some queers at their school because of something they saw online, the writer is not responsible because, hey, free speech.

Judaism cares very much about the things we say. Two major areas of Jewish law, Lashon HaRa (Malicious speech) and Rechilut (gossip) are expressly forbidden. The Chofetz Chaim, a 19th and 20th century rabbi in Europe, wrote expansively on the concept LaShon HaRa, delineating hundreds of guidelines to teach us how to watch what we say. He was so punctilious that one of his rules was that one should not compliment a person in absentia to someone else, because it may lead the person you are speaking with to disagree with you and say something not nice about them. This is not a frequent problem on the internet sites I most often visit. Another principle that might more directly apply to my question of hate speech and the internet: the Chofetz Chaim maintains that one who is in the presence of ill speech should stop the offender from saying the hurtful thing.

Another example of Judaism’s regard for the importance and power of speech is in the ‘Al Chet’ prayer of Yom Kippur. We strike our chest and recite 44 categories of sins we have committed in the past year. Nine of the 44 are sins of speech. We read this list of sins in the plural tense: ‘we have spoken foolishly’, ‘we have spoken hurtfully’. And by not combating hate speech, perhaps we as an American society ensure that these sins will continue unabated.

Clearly, restricting free speech isn’t something we should take lightly. I’ve read ‘1984’. I see the news about China and Russia imprisoning political dissidents. People have the right to say all kinds of things, including unpopular things and things with which I strongly disagree. But it is hard to ignore that a tiny lunatic fringe has been empowered to use the internet to be really, really awful. And it doesn’t have to be this way.

I’m not saying I’ve got it all figured out; I don’t know what the exactly the rules should be, or where the lines should be drawn between something that is mean or distasteful but not something that should be punished or expunged from the web, and something that is a clear act of unacceptable hate speech. I don’t know if would be better to mandate websites like Facebook, Twitter, and the Daily Beast comments section to police themselves more carefully, or whether we should follow the UK’s example and potentially imprison racially abusive offenders. I am saying: its time to seriously consider whether it is OK for anyone to say anything online, while we close our eyes and quickly scroll past it and hope that it goes away.

Filed under Media, Opinion, Politics, Racism, USA

10 Responses to “Bite Their Tongue: Perhaps Unrestricted Free Speech Isn’t Such a Good Thing”

  1. Not even getting into the details of this article, who do you suggest should decide which speech is permitted?


    israel · July 30th, 2013 at 5:37 pm
  2. As you seem to recognize, the lunatic fringe of which you speak nearly always expresses their hate along with enthusiastic religiosity. So, it isn’t uncharitable to ask this question: Why treat the symptom, when you can treat the disease? That is, cull religious freedom in order to cull hate speech. If we criminalized the Westboro Baptist Church, we’d drastically lower the volume on anti-gay hate speech.

    Modern religious have been voluntarily culling hatred and extremism from within their own ranks. The new pope just voluntarily reversed the prior pope’s movement to root out homosexuals in the clergy just because they were homosexual (if they are priests then they are chaste, so homosexual acts as a sin are no special problem for priests qua priests). It would be interesting if that voluntary pursuit were to become compulsory.

    Of course, if there’s one thing the USA seems to care about more than the rights of individuals to express themselves, it’s the speech rights of commercial enterprises and religious organizations. (Sometimes I feel as if the latter is a subclass of the former).

    I think a better alternative to combat online hate speech is to combat the insouciance towards expressing hate that comes along with anonymity. It’s easier to ignore hate speech when you know who to ignore.


    Dan O. · July 31st, 2013 at 1:57 pm
  3. Dan O., interesting idea. I like the idea of stripping any religious groups with encourage hate to lose their 501c3 status, like if you endorse a candidate from a pulpit. Criminalization seems a bit harsh, but that’s just me.

    And Israel, I think we already have some workable guidelines already regarding hate crimes. A hate crime is the combination of hate speech with a violent or destructive act. If the speech that precipitated the act being called a hate crime were, say, a misdemeanor with a $1000 fine regardless of whether violence resulted or not, perhaps the ‘n’ word wouldn’t be used so freely on twitter. But I’m not suggesting that I am qualified to be the arbiter of acceptable speech.


    Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman · July 31st, 2013 at 3:52 pm
  4. Also, Lindy West at jezebel.com had a similar thought this week. Instead of legislating hate speech, though, she suggests we “feed the trolls until they explode.” jezebel.com/dont-ignore-the-trolls-feed-them-until-they-explode-977453815


    Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman · July 31st, 2013 at 5:58 pm
  5. Maybe you can be appointed first Secretary of Speech? (One hopes the Department of Speech can do a better job of being apolitical than the IRS…)


    Eric · August 1st, 2013 at 12:15 am
  6. “Dan O., interesting idea. I like the idea of stripping any religious groups with encourage hate to lose their 501c3 status, like if you endorse a candidate from a pulpit. Criminalization seems a bit harsh, but that’s just me.”

    It’s par for the course that religious organizations receive rights and protections that individuals do not. In that respect, it’s fitting that a “penalty” for a religious organization using hate-speech would be to be treated like an individual who does not use hate speech, for tax purposes.

    So what would be the penalty for individuals? We have no protected tax status. Religious “leaders” will simply spew hate with the proviso that they don’t speak for their organizations when doing so. They will have their covers. Anti-gay events become straight-pride teach-a-thons, where individuals are free to spout their invective which is not officially endorsed (wink wink, nudge nudge).


    Dan O. · August 1st, 2013 at 3:30 pm
  7. So basically you’re stating that Orthodox synagogues should lose their charitable status since their clergy will read and say in Hebrew (It haven’t been keeping up to date as to modern non-Orthodox practices):

    ‘Thou shalt not suffer a sorceress to live’.

    ‘For whatsoever man there be that curseth his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.’

    ‘Both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death’

    And more.

    Sounds like hate speech to me.


    Dave Boxthorn · August 1st, 2013 at 10:30 pm
  8. To point out the obvious, most people using the “n” word on social media, in my experience, are not neonazis, they’re African Americans. So, not only would we need laws about what can be said, but who can say it. Naturally, these laws would be abused by all involved to punish and pigeonhole, first those who deserve it, then those who don’t.

    Europe is Europe, with its own cultures and traumas. For them, hate speech is a kind of affirmative action for tolerance, against the backdrop of genocide and slaughters two millenia long.

    Something the Rabbi doesn’t mention is that Arab countries have successfully persecuted and prosecuted their expatriates, residing in Europe, who write on aspects of Islam. Should such laws be passed here, a country like Iran, whose head of state is essentially considered chosen by divine favor, could sue in American courts to silence regime dissidents, for disagreement with the grand ayatollah’s policy choices is equivalent to hate speech against Shia Islam as practiced in Iran. The Islamic countries at the UN routinely attempt to pass laws to criminalize criticism of Islam. This is the end product of all this incitement against free speech – abuse.

    We are not Europe. As countless American thinkers have written, the answer to hate speech is more speech, not less. As for random acts of violence, I recommend a 9mm and a concealed carry permit. Most prefer a S&W six shooter, but I’m partial to a CZ-75. Welcome to America.


    Victor · August 4th, 2013 at 3:54 am
  9. [...] and slightly higher than a hot pastrami with brown mustard. It is that important. And it was [...] Jewschool Be Sociable, Share! [...]


    Bite Their Tongue: Perhaps Unrestricted Free Speech Isn’t Such a Good Thing | Jewish News · August 4th, 2013 at 9:02 am
  10. OOO! A troll, a troll, can I feed him?


    Kol Ra'ash Gadol · August 7th, 2013 at 4:09 pm

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik