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Bleich: Racist Speech

08/17/11 7:55AM By Erik Bleich
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(HOST) Commentator Erik Bleich is Professor of Political Science at Middlebury College. He's recently written a book that examines the twin struggles of preserving Freedom and combating racism in the U.S. and Europe.

(BLEICH) The recent attack in Norway that killed 77 people reminds us that Islamists have no monopoly on perpetrating deadly acts. They can also be carried out by people who believe that Muslims are a threat to European and American societies.

From Koran-burning pastors to Congressional hearings on Muslims and Homeland Security, we are witnessing the growth of Islamophobia in the United States and Europe. And not all Islamophobia should be protected speech.

Freedom of speech is one of the most important values we have. Without it, we could not openly challenge received wisdoms or mobilize for political change. Any government action limiting this freedom has to be viewed with a skeptical eye. At the same time, free speech is not the only important value in society. We also cherish personal security, public order, human dignity, and tolerance. Citizens face a tough situation when the desire to protect free speech collides with these other values. We have to ask ourselves how much freedom we should grant to racists. This issue is particularly relevant to Vermonters, because our motto, "Freedom and Unity," suggests that both values are paramount in our state.

Virtually everyone agrees that when speech directly incites violence, it must be punished. The more difficult cases involve instances of racism that do not rise to that level. The Norwegian murderer Anders Behring Breivik was nourished by websites laced with statements about the dangers of Islam. Some of these bloggers' assertions are very close to anti-Muslim or anti-Arab statements that have generated prosecutions and sometimes convictions of high profile European politicians, and even of public figures like Brigitte Bardot.

Punishing egregious racism can serve a purpose not only when words incite violence. It may also be necessary when racism incites fear and hatred that turn people against one another. Governments have the responsibility to protect their citizens and their societies by using the law to signal the difference between debate and demonization.

Almost all European societies allow for these kinds of punishments. The United States stands alone in permitting even the most rabid racist statements.

Given the current context of heightened tensions, countries need to intervene to establish the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Branding Muslims as "invaders" or "violent" or "a cancer" does not contribute to the common good; instead, it undermines it.

Naturally, the same logic applies to radical Islamist speech. Incitement to hatred undermines human dignity and social harmony no matter what its source.

Restricting freedom in the name of fighting racism is fraught with risks. Governments may clamp down on speech that is not truly dangerous. Critiques of Islam are valuable parts of the public debate, just as are critiques of Catholicism, Evangelicalism, or secularism. Most outrageous statements are best countered by more speech, rather than by restricting speech. But the attack in Norway reminds us of where virulent racism can lead.

We are not living in the world of the 1930s today. But it's our responsibility to make sure that we never wake up in that world again.

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