Do you really believe in free speech? Does that include speech or symbols you find offensive? A challenge to my thoughts about free speech happened recently with the news that a local homeowner painted a swastika on his house. The village of Owego officials made it clear that, while they don’t approve of the symbol, there is nothing they can do to make the homeowner remove it. He, and his symbol, are protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Before you decide that there should be an exception to the First Amendment because you find that symbol offensive, you need stop and consider what this means. Think back to recent Gay Pride Marches that banned Jews from marching with the Israeli flag because the organizers saw that flag as offensive. The same organizers also refused to let the Jewish Gay Pride flag – a rainbow flag with a Star of David – be displayed because it was considered offensive. In fact, one of the organizers said they were banning “all nationalist symbols” from “nations that have specific oppressive tendencies.” (That included the U.S. flag. The irony is that they allowed the Palestinian flag, even though male homosexual conduct is illegal in Gaza.) In my mind, all political flags should have been banished or all should have been displayed. The same is true for religious symbols: picking and choosing is a judgment that often discriminates.
The fact that the article about the swastika appeared after I’d just written a column about symbols of the Confederacy, which I said don’t belong in public places, caused me to think more about this issue. (To read that column, visit www.thereportergroup.org/Article.aspx?aID=5376.) Finding something offensive isn’t enough to ban it from people’s personal lives. So if someone wants to put a Confederate flag on their home or car, there isn’t anything we can do about it. If it’s on a store, then we have the choice of shopping elsewhere. (I don’t know what people could do, though, when that is the only store available.) However, as I said in that column, these symbols have no place on government buildings or in areas that technically belong to all citizens.
We then have to question whether other symbols should be banned on public property. While Nazi symbols seem obvious, there seem to be far too many people who support the ideas espoused by the Nazi cause – just think of all the news articles about swastikas that have been drawn on buildings, particularly Jewish ones, in recent years. If you feel the Confederate flag stands for slavery, which is the reason given for removing it from public property, then it should be removed. But how do you feel about other oppression? When does a flag come to represent a particular policy, rather than a whole country? That’s what we face when people equate the Israeli flag with oppression. You can disagree with Israeli policy and still believe Israel has the right to exist as a nation. The line between being anti-Israeli policy and being antisemitic has become far too porous for me.
I think that we just have to accept that, in order to live in a democracy, we will be faced with symbols and statements we find offensive. We may have to deal with neighbors who paint symbols on their houses that offend us, or make statements online or off that we believe are bigoted and prejudicial. I normally say that education is the key to correcting this problem, but, obviously, that hasn’t worked, at least not so far. I’m not sure what I would do if a neighbor painted a swastika on his/her house. Perhaps I would call on local Jewish organizations in the hope that they could help me deal with it. Would I move if the symbol was never removed? Would that mean a bigot won if they drove a Jewish person from her home by making her feel that uncomfortable? Let’s hope we never have to find out.