Freedom of speech is a highly-valued tenet of American law and custom, but when hate speech pops up like an ugly weed, parting the thicket of thorny issues can be painful: Free speech, hate speech, censorship, private vs. public, sunshine laws and religious bigotry among others.
Anti-Islam speaker Usama Dakdok came to Grand Forks twice. Generally speaking, Dakdok believes that “Islam is a barbaric, savage cult,” that President Obama is a Muslim and that Democrats are dumb. The first time Dakdok spoke in Grand Forks, he was met with picket-signs and protests and the second time with a counter-event taking place elsewhere at the same time.
Unfortunately, Dakdok’s second visit also prompted a city council member to call a meeting to talk about “efforts to clearly express that this is an inclusive and welcoming community” — a meeting that the press was originally explicitly not invited to attend. Fortunately for everyone except the lawyers of the parties involved, the press was allowed in to the meeting after all, so we got to hear the solutions proposed to the hate speech problem.
Many people have expressed their opinions on this issue. My opinions expressed here are mine, not those of the Herald, whose editorial on the subject can be found here, and not those of the city council member calling the (initially) no-press meeting, which can be found here.
0. I don’t agree with Dakdok.
1. The city council member, who writes “This was not about free speech.” The press was specifically uninvited because he wanted people at the meeting to speak freely, and while this is understandable its legality is extremely questionable under North Dakota’s highly stringent sunshine laws. But there is a question, and that means it is about free speech.
2. The Herald’s editorial, which states that “there’s not a darn thing Grand Forks should do about it.” I don’t agree with that at all. I think the best remedy for bad speech, including Usama Dakdok’s, is good speech. I would support another counter-event planned at the same time as Dakdok’s. I would support one comparing his “translations” of the Koran to real ones, or an event comparing the Koran to the Bible, the Torah and the Upanishads, or any relevant texts. I would support local churches pointing out that Dakdok does not reflect their own Christian faith, or that his work is doctrinally unsound.
3. The city council member, who suggested throwing a block party near any future speech of Dakdok’s, in order to make it impossible to park for Dakdok’s speech. To me, that would be inhibiting the speech of others.
4. Letters claiming that Dakdok’s speech isn’t hate speech. It really is. Calling Christianity a “barbaric, savage cult” is hateful; calling Islam one isn’t magically different because the target has changed. That doesn’t mean saying either of those two things is illegal, though. The government can’t prevent him from saying that, and it shouldn’t even try. Of course, he isn’t allowed to go onto private property, such as homes or businesses, and say it there, if the property owner decides otherwise.
5. Letters claiming someone is being censored if Dakdok isn’t hosted by the Empire anymore. The Empire cannot be forced to provide a venue to anyone who asks, and people cannot be forced to attend Dakdok’s presentation, either. Here’s a pretty good webcomic explaining this. Criticism of Dakdok is not censorship of Dakdok; he is allowed to say what he likes, but he is still responsible for what he says and he is not immune from consequences.
6. Letters claiming there were no consequences for Dakdok’s speech because there were no riots, deaths or property destruction afterward. Most likely people, especially white people born in America, did not see any consequences of Dakdok’s speech because none of them were directed at them. It doesn’t follow that there weren’t any. I didn’t see many negative effects from bigotry against Native Americans or Hispanic people either, because I’m white, so negative effects aren’t going to be directed toward me. Were there more people using slurs against Somalians after Dakdok left? Were there more people who will tell others what they heard, who will be violent or destroy property in their own communities? Were there more people who will try to shut the gates to desperate refugees afterward? All these are consequences. Whether they occur, and whether they are bad enough to worry about if they do occur, are valid questions, but claiming there were no consequences seems shortsighted to me.
7. I would not support deliberately holding an event in a nearby location to Dakdok’s in order to make it hard to find parking for Dakdok’s event. That falls under the category of attempting to squelch him, which I do not support. That’s inhibiting speech, not creating more speech to counter bad speech.
8. I would support the city politely asking the Empire not to host him–with the proviso that the city should not attempt to impose any penalties if the Empire hosts him anyway. The city is perfectly within its rights to ask; the Empire is perfectly within its rights to decline if it desires. Asking the Empire to decline hosting him doesn’t impinge on Dakdok’s free speech; he will just find a different venue, and there are many here in Grand Forks to choose from. Places like the Empire are not obliged to provide a venue to anyone who wants one.