Discussions surrounding free speech have many components, including the 5W’s (+how): what, when, where, how, who and why.
- What? Should hate speech or fake news be allowed to spread on open, non-vetted platforms? Calls for violence are prohibited, but what about everything else?
- Where? Facebook had declared itself as a platform, not a media company that vets articles or checks facts. The US Congress and many citizens have challenged the FB claim due to the company’s vast reach and influence.
- Who? Should anonymous people be allowed to post opinions? What about non-US citizens? The accusation that Russians interfered with the US elections has prompted people to pressure for changes.
- When? Should people be allowed to express their opinions when people have paid for an experience that does not include outside interference? Why should football fans watch players protest the national anthem after the fans spent a small fortune to come to the game? Should anti-Israel protesters take a free trip to Israel on a Birthright trip to hijack the discussion and experience from others?
- How? Are marches through a residential neighborhood, anti-war protests at cemeteries, the burning of a flag, the drawing of a prophet, the burning of an effigy of a person, all captured under the same notion of free speech and expression?
- Why? Does the reason behind the speech matter? If the goal is to upend an election, to get a woman to change her mind about an abortion, or to topple the government, should there be limits on free speech?
If a country that cherishes free speech begins to place restrictions around it, what are the tools that will be used to enforce those limits? If a person refuses to call a transgender person by their preferred pronoun, can an organization take actions such as expelling or fining him?
Several wealthy individuals have been paying for young people to attend a multi-day tour of Israel, in a program known as Birthright Israel. Recently, a group of anti-Zionists joined the trip in an attempt to tell their own version of history and facts that were not advanced by the organized tour. The agitators disrupted the special week for all of the other participants as discussed in a letter they wrote to the Jerusalem Post.
One of the co-founders of Birthright, Charles Bronfman, was particularly disturbed by the protesters’ actions and said
“If people want to call Israel names and say bad things about the country, they certainly have the right to free speech. But they don’t have the right to do it on our nickel.“
The essence of the complaint by both the organizers who sponsor the Birthright trip and the participants enjoying the trip was that the issue was not one of free speech, but one of a broken agreement. The founders paid for the trip which had a well-established and known itinerary. All of the participants on the trip accepted those terms but then a handful undermined it for everyone else on the tour.
The issue was not where the protesters opted to exercise free speech. Israel permits free speech and the Birthright protesters could have gone off to Palestinian Arab villages at the end of the tour. But they opted to ruin the experience for others with loud chants in the middle of their free trip.
The furor around players of the National Football League kneeling during the national anthem has a similar dynamic. If the players want to stand on Hollywood Boulevard and yell about their anger at perceived abuse by police, they are free to do so. However, they are doing it inside a forum where fans have paid to watch a football game. That is not the experience which people paid for.
Bronfman had it right when he objected to people undermining an experience “on his nickel.” The US president featured on the nickel, Thomas Jefferson once said
“To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is both sinful and tyrannical.”
The Birthright Israel trip has a clear and specific agenda and those people who oppose it are free to not go on the tour. But it is disgraceful (“sinful and tyrannical”) to invert the purpose of the sponsors’ funds in a manner in which they completely disbelieve and abhor.
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