Freedom to Limit Freedom

Recent Events Demonstrate the Need to Regulate Free Speech

The assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was the culmination of a slanderous and abusive campaign by right-wing extremists. Politicians and the public in Israel as well as in every enlightened country in the world need to learn their lesson and redefine the limits of "freedom of speech."

The problem today is that freedom of speech has been elevated to the status of a "sacred cow" not to be touched or challenged regardless of circumstances or consequences. However, recent events such as the Rabin assassination and the Oklahoma bombing are alarming occurrences which signal that there is something fundamentally wrong with this approach.

The purpose of freedom of speech is to create a forum for civil discourse so that we can resolve disagreements and be exposed to diverse voices in a free society. If this forum is exploited and used to turn against the core values of a free society, then certain measures must be taken.

The bombing in Oklahoma City was the end result of a continuous denigration of government officials. Rabin's assassination was also a consequence of right-wing extremists being allowed to practice their freedom of speech, thereby inciting the public to violent measures against the government.

The hateful and dangerous rhetoric of Rabin's assassins and the militia groups was protected by the same political systems they sought to sabotage. It is preposterous that a free society creates a platform that supports the very elements that are there to undermine it.

The most extreme example in recent history was Adolf Hitler's employment of freedom of speech to rise to power. There is something inherently wrong with a system that assists those who would seek to overthrow it.

Moreover, often those who try to overthrow the system are taking advantage of values that they themselves will abolish as soon as they get to power. Hitler, for example, used freedom of speech and democracy to overthrow freedom of speech and democracy. One can only imagine what measures the extreme groups in Israel and the United States would take if they were to seize power.

Just as actual violence needs to be denounced and punished, so do words that promote, lead towards or support violence. It is ridiculous that in the name of "freedom of speech" we must wait passively while a group declares that it is going to blow up government officials, murder the prime minister or carry out genocide.

If your next door neighbor were to tell you that he was going to blow up your house, you would certainly do something about it before he actually carried out his plan. Yet because of the misconception that freedom of speech should be accepted as a categorical imperative, an analogous situation is tolerated on the political front.

Countries ought to take preemptive measures against those who abuse freedom of speech. Such measures may be unpopular at first. Here, the example of the Israeli air raid on the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor is illuminating.

In 1981 Israeli planes demolished Iraqi nuclear plants. The world roared with indignation because Iraq was not actually using the weapons against Israel.

Yet 10 years later, during the Gulf War, this preventive measure saved the lives of many. Had Israel waited until Iraq actually attacked, it might have been too late. Israel's action is a perfect example of the legitimate and necessary use of force in response to the threat of action. It is an example where force comes to protect the existence of a free society.

Israel was unfortunately less wise when dealing with its internal affairs. Just as it was no secret that Saddam Hussein would not hesitate to initiate hostilities, it was certainly no secret that right-wing extremists in Israel would also use force to achieve their ends. Their leaders sanctioned violence and it was only a matter of time before something would happen. Those who promote violence need to be punished regardless of whether or not they are not actually carrying out violent actions themselves.

Admittedly there is a certain danger in restricting freedom of speech. Limitations on speech may be taken too far under the banner of "the prevention of violence" which may lead to the oppression of important and diverse voices.

It is therefore important to devise explicit laws that clearly define the parameters of free speech. The line must be drawn between harm-inducing speech and freedom of speech that is a necessary condition for a free and democratic society. There are many gray areas that need to be clarified and discussed (in a civil manner) before such laws are implemented.

We can regard one thing as certain: support for murdering your prime minister, blowing up government officials and carrying out genocide certainly lies outside the permitted parameters.