Marc Lamont Hill is a Professor of Media Studies and Urban Education at Philadelphia’s Temple University. He is also a political pundit who, until Thursday, November 29, was under contract with CNN. That contract was terminated by the news network after Hill delivered a speech to the United Nations, in which he called for the de facto destruction of the Jewish state of Israel. Temple University is standing by their faculty member, though. Free speech is on trial once again, and the core questions are: Should free speech be absolute and, if so, is everyone – of all political persuasions – willing to respect that absolutism or will some always insist upon politically-motivated exceptions?
While most people recognize that certain ideas are unacceptable in polite society and should not be publicly expressed, there is always an inherent danger in allowing institutions, be they governments or private organizations, to discriminate against or even punish individuals for articulating their thoughts and opinions. This is because speech or, more precisely, the fearless and frank exchange of ideas, determines how a society is governed.
Free Speech Shapes Government
This concept was echoed in George Orwell’s novel, 1984, in which the totalitarian ruling party of Oceania imposed the use of a version of the English language with an extremely narrow vocabulary. The idea behind this was that, by restricting the actual words people knew, understood, and used, the scope of thought itself was narrowed and, therefore, easily regulated.
The Founding Fathers represented the polar opposite view. They held that it is the people, ultimately, who govern and, for their governance to be wise and just, they must be able to engage in discussion, debate, and the open interchange of ideas without fear of punishment or reprisal.
Activists and politicians on the more extreme political left have always been uncomfortable with this notion. For many years, they pushed a soft and unofficial form of censorship that came to be commonly known as political correctness. This undefined system of suppression laid the groundwork to silence their political opponents by accusing them of going outside of what is considered acceptable; branding them racist, homophobic, xenophobic, misogynist, and so on. The concept of “hate speech” was born, but left-wingers made themselves the sole arbiters of what would qualify.
When CNN terminated Marc Lamont Hill’s contract, it issued no statement denouncing his remarks or distancing the network from the sentiments he expressed, and there is something significant about this refusal to pass judgment on the content of Hill’s speech. Most obvious is that CNN could not denounce Hill’s comments about Israel because he said nothing to which the network objects.
Hill’s termination, then, was purely a matter of optics; it was merely an act to ensure that CNN itself was not labeled anti-Semitic. Temple University, by contrast, stood behind the professor’s right to free speech while pointing out that his views were not those of the institution.
The Destruction of Israel?
The professor’s UN speech was not anti-Semitic, per se – unless one considers all criticism of Israel to be so. It was, however, a call for the end of the country. It was a speech that implicitly accepted the slaughter of Israelis and Palestinians alike and the eventual destruction of Israel as a democracy, an independent nation, and a Jewish state. Specifically, Hill called for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea.” Such an eventuality is simply not possible without the erasing of Israel from the map of the Middle East.
In response to criticism of his speech, Hill attempted to backtrack, describing the idea that he was advocating the destruction of Israel as “absurd on its face.” In light of what he told the UN, however, his denial is, itself, absurd on its face. As Hill admits on Twitter:
“I talked about the need to return to the pre-1967 borders, to give full rights to Palestinian citizens of Israel, and to allow right of return.”
Were Israel to cede captured and occupied territory and withdraw to its pre-1967 borders, and were it to grant the so-called “right of return” to all Palestinians who once lived in the geographical area, the Jewish population would find itself vastly outnumbered by people who have been raised to hate it and consider its eradication a sacred duty.
Free speech should be absolute, even when the words themselves are considered abhorrent to many or even to the vast majority.
The outcome of Hill’s desire for that part of the world is inevitable; in the absence of outside intervention, massive civil unrest would lead to all-out war. Thousands of Palestinians would die but, by sheer force of numbers, they would ultimately prevail through attrition. Quite simply, the Jews of Israel would be unable to sustain their hold upon their own country once they had suffered a critical number of fatalities, rendering their population too small to continue resistance.
Deeds, Not Words, Are Dangerous
Having established, then, that Hill was indeed calling for the destruction of Israel, the question is whether he should be punished for such sentiments. Should society draw boundaries around free speech? Should governments impose those boundaries by force of the law? Should private companies and institutions fire employees who express ideas that are deemed unacceptable?
The answer to all of these questions should be: No. Free speech should be absolute, even when the words themselves are considered abhorrent to many or even to the vast majority. Certain restrictions upon specific rights have been accepted in the name of public safety. Even the staunchest Second Amendment advocates concede that those with a history of violent crime should not be allowed to own firearms. Most people agree that individuals who are clearly a danger to the public should be incarcerated – deprived of their freedom.
These two examples of accepting a restriction of rights in the name of public safety are so common that they are barely discussed, but they are not the same as restricting speech. Why? Because words do not cause physical damage – neither do they cause even emotional harm to the mentally stable.
What about hate speech? In promoting measures that would inevitably result in the bloody and fiery end to the state of Israel, Hill is engaging in the one type of expression that should be considered unacceptable; he is promoting the removal of all rights – including the very right to live – from an entire population. If there were ever a true example of hate speech, that is it: speech that advocates the stripping of basic human rights from any person or group of people. One person’s rights end where another’s rights begin, and so there is nothing more hateful than promoting the suppression of liberty. There is a difference between expressing the wish to oppress people and actually doing it.
Actions, therefore, are what should be policed. Thought and speech fuel each other and both can inspire action, but only the action itself can be hateful. Marc Lamont Hill is entitled to his thoughts, however objectionable they are. He should be allowed to express them. In fact, it is imperative that people with bad intentions be permitted to give voice to them lest we forget that such intentions exist. For that very reason, it is good that those who wish to restrict freedom of speech continue to talk and write about that wish; they serve to remind all freedom-loving people of the danger posed by those people, should they be allowed to act upon their desire.