Keith Ellison on freedom of speech: "It's a good and bad thing" [INTERVIEW PART 3]

Categories: Keith Ellison

I believe that the movie is not in the heartland of what we call political speech. I believe that when we talk about political speech, [we're talking about] people who are making controversial but perhaps legitimate points of view based on their interpretation of some set of facts. This particular movie wasn't in that realm. This was what I would describe as 'incitement.' But, for a democratic society like ours, incitement is kind of a problem.
Ellison ascribes last week's anti-America Middle East unrest to 'religious extremists and regime loyalists.'

Most of the time, political speech, even if wrong or ill-advised, it invites a counter-argument and in the course of the back and forth maybe society learns an even greater truth. The clash of ideas is the sound of freedom, right? I might pull out an idea, maybe it's good, maybe it isn't. 'Maybe blacks should be able to sit anywhere they want on the bus' -- I think that's a fine idea, let's do it. So if you ban somebody because you didn't like it you would foreclose debate and not reach higher truth.

This isn't that type of speech. It is incitement. But, given our constitutional heritage and our culture, we don't have any good way to deal with it. Let's face it, there are people in America who would ban Islam if they could. I'm not joking. So what's the answer? There's only one. The only answer is that people of good will and good faith have to use their constitutional right to free expression to condemn incitement. Trying to craft a bill or statute to ban it is nearly impossible without banning some other type of speech that may be legitimate. I think it's crappy for the guy to have [created the anti-Islam film]. I think it's despicable actually but it's like when people want to burn a Koran.

What legitimate point of view is that? It's like Nazis marching to incite Jews in Skokie. There's no way to stop them from doing it, so I don't think there's any way to have a rule to ban the kind of incitement contained in that movie.

[But] we aren't helpless. Speaking up on a more powerful truth like saying all faiths should be respected, you don't have to like their faith but you shouldn't be openly antagonized. You see Coptic leaders denouncing this film, you see Jews, Christians, Muslim leaders, it's more powerful than just banning.

[It's like Don Imus] calling the Rutgers' women's basketball team 'nappy-headed hos.' It's the right of the private employer to take him off the air, the right of the listeners to demand that the speech was wrong and then [the employer] to say, 'I don't want to be associated with that.' The best thing to do would be with this movie, Koran burning, Nazis marching, is for people to say you have a right to do it but you're wrong.

A lot of foreign leaders don't understand. Nasrallah [leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah] said if [America] was really against the film, you'd ban it. Actually, no, you're wrong about that, but you don't understand this country.

Nasrallah doesn't understand that as a law abiding person he'd be able to practice Islam more freely in American than anywhere else in the world. If you are a Shia Muslim in Saudi Arabia, life is going to be hard. A Sunni in Iran, life is going to be hard. If you want to wear a religious [emblem] in Turkey, tough times. France, they want to ban you from wearing religious symbols. In Switzerland you can't build a mosque with a minaret on it. The thing about it, freedom of speech, it's a good and bad thing. It applies to everybody. Once you start making exceptions, you start the erosion of the principle.

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