The Borders of Free Speech

It is not unusual for the Borders bookstore on the corner of 18th and K St. in Washington to host talks by authors promoting their books.  What is unusual is for the speaker to inspire a protest.

But when the speaker in question is Pam Geller, a blogger of the extreme right and one of the loudest voices against the Islamic Center at Park 51 near ground zero, a protest seems inevitable.

“There’s a huge wave of hatred in this country now,” says Tom Judd, the unaffiliated activist who organized the protest.  “We’re trying to bring attention to the fact that this woman is a hate monger, a racist, someone who supports racists and hates Muslims.” Judd hopes to shame Borders for giving Geller a platform by calling attention to the event.

Geller responds to the accusations by averring, “I don’t hate Muslims and it’s a ridiculous premise.  It’s just a smear campaign.”  Why are the protesters targeting her?  “Your guess is as good as mine, you’ll have to ask them.  Because 70% of Americans oppose the idea of a mega-mosque at Ground Zero, in a building that was destroyed by the plane.  That building is part of ground zero.  I’m just one of millions of Americans.” [Note: a Time poll estimated the that about 61% oppose the center, and the plane parts destroyed only 3 stories of the building].

Despite her claims, it is not difficult to see how the protesters came to believe that she hates Islam, even if not individual Muslims.  On her blog, in which she provides “original reportage,” she frequently equates Islam with radicalism and murder and has even gone so far as to call for the removal of Islam’s third holiest site. “It is sitting atop the great Jewish temple. The dome has got to go.” 

Similarly, Geller runs an ad campaign for potential victims of honor killings, which directs people to a website entitled LeaveIslamSafely.com, as opposed to, say, LeaveDangerSafely.com or EscapeExtremismSafely.com.  Regarding her book, the Washington Post listed it among a slew of inflammatory, polemical titles that it called “rude, self-righteous and inflammatory.”

Indeed, the “9/11 Mosque” is one of the most divisive issues of the summer.  Jesse Zarley, a self-described socialist who heard about the protest through the Coalition to Stop Islamophobia, says he is “disgusted by the racism and Islamophobia being whipped up around the question of the Islamic Cultural Center in lower Manhattan,” and ranks Geller at “the ugliest end” of such views.  The feelings are mutual.  In her own blog post about the protest, Geller called it “a tiresome exercise in ‘dialoguing’ with rude morons.”

But in an environment in which activists are yelling past each other, people may not recognize the consequences of their actions.  For example, several passersby who had never heard of Geller walked into the store to check out her book after seeing the protest.  “Protesters usually attract people to come in to what they’re protesting against,” said one newly interested bystander.  Judd, the organizer, admits that Geller is “not someone of any real note, but because of the mosque protest, that’s gotten her a lot of face time.” 

Such protest also raise questions about the limits of free speech.  Should Borders (or the numerous media outlets that have provided Geller a platform, ranging from WorldNetDaily and Fox to CNN and NBC) deny someone a platform just because she has unpopular or radical views?  Do they have guidelines as to whom they will and will not host?  Given that providing a platform does not imply an endorsement of views, should such limits exist?  Does boycotting the institutions that do provide such platforms stifle free speech?  Borders did not return a phone call seeking a clarification of their policy.

According to Eric Sapp, a Founding Partner of the Eleison Group, a political consultancy specializing in religion, one consequence of a lax media and unregulated blogosphere is the insertion of chronic misinformation into the public debate.  One example is the recent Pew Poll, in which 20% of Americans misidentified President Obama as a Muslim (he is, in fact, a Christian).  

"The difference between this President and others is that they did not have a 24-7 ‘news’ and blog machine spouting lies and half-truths in an attempt to plant seeds of doubt in voters minds," says Sapp.

When President Obama commented on the Park 51 project, he noted that although the legality was clear, the “wisdom” of the project was more complicated. 

The same might be said of free speech, and how the participants in this debate are choosing to exercise it.

-Niv Elis