Courtesy Facebook

In continuation of my series on First Amendment rights as they impact religious minority groups, I address current controversy over social media posts maligning religious groups. My previous post in this series entitled Does Freedom of Speech Allow Stereotyping discussed a greeting card that stereotyped Muslims as terrorists in an unusually offensive and glaringly inaccurate way. This week I have chosen another unfortunate event, a Facebook post that ignited debate over the possible classification of certain types of content as threats instead of free speech. Tennessee County Commissioner Barry West posted a picture on his Facebook page showing a cowboy aiming a shotgun at the camera with the caption “How to Wink at a Muslim”.

My personal feelings of disgust aside, the post once again shows a classic example of stereotyping, this time through social media, which is so much more viral than a greeting card. It further promotes a viewpoint of how to “deal” with all Muslims, regardless of whether they are decent, peaceful individuals or not. In my opinion this type of speech is more suited to be called hate speech than free speech. If the word Muslim was replaced by virtually any other group across the lines of ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, there would be uproar at this and many other social media posts that come under the protection of free speech. Noam Chomsky in a You-Tube video explains this kind of phenomenon thus:

Anti-Semitism is no longer a legitimate form of racism. Anti-Arab bias is a legitimate form of racism. Meaning you don’t have to hide it. In most forms of racism you have to pretend you’re not a racist, say, pretend I’m not anti-Semitic, I’m not anti-black, you may be but you don’t advertise it. Anti-Arab (and anti-Muslim) racism you’re allowed to advertise. In the community, you see it in the films, books, attitudes, it’s not even hidden.

Commissioner West’s Facebook post received more attention than perhaps he himself had anticipated. Realizing that some may consider the gun in the picture a threat, U.S. Attorney Bill Killian and Kenneth Moore, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Knoxville office, spoke at an event called “Public Disclosure in a Diverse Society” in Manchester, TN. According to Killian himself, the event was organized in order to:

… facilitate discussion towards the goal of greater tolerance, understanding and peaceful community relations, as well as to inform the public about what federal laws are in effect and what the consequences are for violating them, including what speech is protected and what speech could be considered a threat under the law.

The media reported that the audience of 300 was extremely hostile, and those outside took advantage of the situation to hand out anti-Islamic literature, patriotic and even Christian materials. The event and press it received probably resulted in shining a bigger limelight on West’s Facebook post more than any amount of shares or likes could have. Called traitor and serpent by hecklers in the crowd, Killian’s message was one of compromise and peace:

Let me be clear, in this country, hateful speech is allowed. It is protected by the freedom of speech part of the first amendment. But if someone makes threats of violence, that is not protected speech and they will be prosecuted. Likewise, if someone commits acts of violence under the guise of religious or other speech, they will be prosecuted for their violent acts.

The First Amendment as it relates to social media, whether Twitter, Facebook or You-Tube, is entering popular and political debate increasingly in recent times. That free speech is not without consequences is being slowly understood by some. Schools and colleges are making students and staff accountable for their posts and tweets in a way that may pave the way for others to follow and therefore open up a new can of worms. Other cases of violent free speech have been regulated in the past, such as a British man’s joke about blowing up his airport that resulted in him being prosecutedby the law. But similar jokes – if they can be called such – about killing Muslims have so far not been taken seriously. Remember Eric Rush’s tweet about killing all Muslims after the Boston bombing? He later said it was a joke and an experiment, but to Muslims it probably sounded very much like a threat that went viral.

All these instances and many more that I haven’t cited here point to the important role social media is beginning to play in national and international politics. An incredibly interesting and thought provoking articleby the New Republic about the Delete Squad – a group of decision makers at the top social media companies – and how they decide which posts, images, tweets and videos to axe gives an insider look at the tough scenarios ahead of us. Apart from the various examples of free speech abuse around the world, the article makes an excellent point:

As corporate rather than government actors, the Deciders aren’t formally bound by the First Amendment. But to protect the best qualities of the Internet, they need to summon the First Amendment principle that the only speech that can be banned is that which threatens to provoke imminent violence, an ideal articulated by Justice Louis Brandeis in 1927.

Bottom line: don’t use your social media account to threaten, whether in joking or as an experiment, any person or group. It’s not the decent thing to do by any standards, and could be the start of a legal/political nightmare.


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