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Efforts to curb online hate meet concerns over free speech
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Efforts to curb online hate meet concerns over free speech

ADL survey of harassment adds urgency to debate on limits of expression

An ADL survey of harassment adds urgency to a debate over limits of expression.
An ADL survey of harassment adds urgency to a debate over limits of expression.

A new survey by the Anti-Defamation League confirms the wide extent of online hate and harassment — but will probably not settle a national debate over the limits of what can and can’t be said online and in other public forums.

Fully 28 percent of Americans said they have experienced online harassment and hate this year — and 22 percent said they were subject to religion-based harassment, double the figure just two years ago, according to the ADL. It also found that fully 77 percent of the online harassment took place on Facebook.

The ADL, along with the NAACP and four other civil rights organizations, has now launched a campaign calling upon some of the world’s largest corporations to pause advertising on Facebook for the month of July. Among the major corporations joining the effort are Patagonia, the North Face, Upwork, REI, and Mozilla.

Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL’s CEO, explained that the campaign aims to demonstrate to Facebook that “there are consequences when it doesn’t deal with racism on the platform, when it doesn’t deal with conspiracy theories on the platform, and when it doesn’t deal with anti-Semitism and all forms of hate and Holocaust deniers on the platform.”

Speaking on CNBC, Greenblatt said white nationalists have used Facebook “to organize their efforts to disrupt the protests over the last several weeks.”

“The time has come for the company to say we are not going to allow this kind of hate — which is further dividing our country — to proliferate on their platform,” said Greenblatt. “We want to push Facebook, show Facebook that if they don’t take action the bottom line will suffer.”

Facebook isn’t the only institution being pressured to respond to the spread of inflammatory speech. At major newspapers, on college campuses, and even within Jewish organizations there are heated debates over limiting what can and can’t be said.

Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, has been under fire for the platform’s hands-off approach toward President Donald Trump’s inflammatory Facebook posts, while Twitter has flagged Trump’s tweets as untruthful or for glorifying violence. Zuckerberg insists Facebook is not the “arbiter of truth” and that he stands for free speech.

The New York Times faced an internal revolt earlier this month when it published online an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) calling for military troops to quash street protests. Several African-American members of The Times staff objected that the op-ed put them in danger, and the paper later said it contained inaccuracies. The opinion editor resigned in the wake of the pushback.

The reactions to the resignation and The Times’ mea culpa ranged from relief that that paper recognized the limits of incendiary speech, to outrage that the editors had allowed an overly sensitive “mob” to muzzle opposing ideas.

Arielle Angel, the editor of Jewish Currents, said her progressive magazine “has high thresholds for op-eds and doesn’t run that many because we have seen how they degrade the discourse. We do an analysis that has to be backed up by research and reporting. … We are suspicious about the ways op-eds are standing in for news and reporting.”

But Ken Stern, director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, a program of the Human Rights Project at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., said the discourse benefitted from allowing Cotton’s views to be heard. 

“There is a strong argument to be made that a U.S. senator who is pushing a policy that reflects what the president is saying should be able to say it,” he said.

‘That is not speech’

Stern, author of the new book “The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate,” said he worries “about some of the backlash that seemed to suggest there should be a narrowness in the things The Times publishes.”

“The idea of knowing what a senator thinks is important and people can then criticize what he said. Ideas do not endanger, especially when people can respond back to them.”

Similarly, Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist and law professor at Touro College, dismissed the complaints by Times’ staffers, saying “they were acting as if someone had burned a cross on their lawn.”

“The discussion itself was being treated as if it is an act of violence,” he continued. “In the past, the Insurrection Act [of 1807, invoked by Cotton] has been used to quell disturbances, and now may have been the time to use it. But the idea he could not even raise this question is a problem.”

On the other hand, Rosenbaum, author of the new book “Saving Free Speech … From Itself,” said there are limits to the free expression of ideas. He said he would not have debated neo-Nazis marching in Skokie, Ill., in 1977, or granted a permit to the white nationalists who converged on Charlottesville, Va., for the 2017 Unite the Right rally, during which they chanted “Jews will not replace us.”

“That is not speech,” said Rosenbaum.

Nor would he have afforded then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a platform to speak at Columbia University in 2007.

“He was treated like a diplomat, but if he says he wants to wipe a country [Israel] off the face of the Earth, he does not function as a diplomat,” Rosenbaum said.

Stern, however, said he believes Columbia acted properly by extending the invitation to Ahmadinejad. “It was important for students to hear him. That is the same principle why you would invite a member of the Ku Klux Klan to speak at a college journalism class — to teach the students how to interview him. There are people who have reprehensible views and it is important to hear them firsthand.”

The First Amendment, he says, “is there to protect the expression of ideas that we find detestable, especially in difficult times. Academic freedom suggests that we ought to be able to look at ideas holistically. … we lose the ability to build knowledge when we prohibit certain ideas from even getting into the academy.”

Which is why Stern is wary that a “working definition of anti-Semitism” he helped draft when he was a staffer at the American Jewish Committee is being used as a code for campus hate speech. In his book, he describes the heat he took from colleagues and critics for suggesting that limiting what pro-Palestinian students could say about Israel would backfire on Jewish students.

Similarly, Stern disagrees with the 2018 refusal of Camp Ramah, the Conservative movement’s camping arm, to engage with groups that are “not unequivocally pro-Israel,” including the Jewish anti-occupation group IfNotNow.

“I understand the impulse, but it struck me as not terribly wise when you have kids who identify as Jewish and have certain positions about the conflict,” he said. “You can engage in the camp about what you think about these things rather than saying these campers have the wrong view and we won’t let them in.”

Rosenbaum agreed that “speech should not be regulated merely because it insults or offends … but there is a great deal of difference between offense and harm. As long as speech is offered in a respectful, thoughtful, civilized manner, and its intention is to introduce new ideas or challenge old ones — even if unpopular, even if upsetting — then it belongs in the mythical marketplace of ideas.” 

Stewart Ain is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.

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