With so many challenging economic and social issues facing state lawmakers, you have to wonder why they are taking up so much of their time – and taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars – trying to stifle speech critical of Israel. Whether people support such criticism or oppose it, I hope we can all agree on one thing: our lawmakers are supposed to be guiding the ship of state, not engaging in state censorship.
The first such item was the removal of Amiri Baraka from his appointed role as our State’s Poet Laureate whose 250+ line poem “Somebody Blew Up America” contained four lines that offended people who interpreted them as anti-Semitic. No fewer than 13 bills were introduced on this topic. But the solution was worse than the offense: to deprive future generations of New Jerseyans of a poet laureate.
Next, key leaders stepped forward to scrutinize and attempt to stop a conference at Rutgers University sponsored by a student group, New Jersey Solidarity, that supports the cause of Palestinian self-determination.
The law here is well established: Rutgers must give student groups common rights and privileges that it cannot deny based on disagreement with the subject or content of their activities.
In expending state resources in an effort to silence Baraka and the students involved with New Jersey Solidarity, our leaders disrespect and disregard America’s founding ideals of freedom and the law of our day. They also demonstrate a failure to understand why an open marketplace of ideas is necessary and essential to America’s well-being.
Diversity is without question one of America’s greatest strengths and it creates some of our biggest challenges. American people hold unlimited perspectives, experiences and beliefs, and New Jersey is a shining example of that diversity. We are all Americans, and Americans share the belief that we’re all entitled to express ourselves. Defending our neighbors’ freedoms is defending our own.
When someone expresses something disagreeable, others can respond. This creates a way for society to reject disagreeable ideas, as in the case of the appointment of racist Mark Moran to the Hopewell Council, which caused sufficient public outcry to prompt his resignation. This is an example of the open marketplace of ideas at work.
The open marketplace of ideas also creates increased dialogue and understanding among people. It works so well that organizations seeking to reduce bias and bigotry have developed programs that use facilitated dialogue to promote understanding. The Anti-Defamation League, which offers one such program, “A World of Difference,” describes the campus environment as a place where students must be able to “broaden their range of life experiences, non-violently challenge the social and political landscape, and learn from people with perspectives different from their own.” The New Jersey Solidarity conference could promote precisely this kind of environment.
What if instead of spending taxpayers’ resources on the demise of Baraka’s official position, concerned leaders held a roundtable meeting with community members to discuss the offending poem? Such a forum could debunk myths, elaborate on beliefs and build bonds between different New Jersey communities. Had ADL used its “World of Difference” philosophies to create such an environment for dialogue, rather than pressing for Baraka’s removal, then perhaps we could have reached a more satisfying result.
What if instead of trying to interfere with the conference at Rutgers, Governor McGreevey viewed a national student conference on the plight of the Palestinians as a feather in New Jersey’s cap – an opportunity to further civil dialogue in this crucial area. This could mark Rutgers as a leader in campus dialogue and student activism on issues of critical importance.
Historically, at times of national stress -- real or imagined -- First Amendment rights come under enormous pressure. During the Red Scare of the early 1920s, thousands were deported for their political views. During the McCarthy period, the infamous blacklist ruined lives and careers. In the politically tumultuous 1960s, academic freedom came under attack. Today, some of New Jersey’s top leaders are using their authority and the public’s resources to try to suppress dialogue about a critical political issue. What’s next?
The First Amendment exists precisely to protect even the most offensive and controversial speech from government suppression. Censorship cannot achieve the desired result because human beings will not be censored. Silenced ideas fester underground. Silenced people become dangerous. Open dialogue on the other hand lets people hear all perspectives on an issue, and accept or reject ideas on their own.
Who are our government officials to decide which ideas we will or won’t hear? Who are they to deprive New Jerseyans of opportunities for dialogue and growth? Surely, they must have something better to do.
-By Deborah Jacobs ACLU-NJ Executive Director