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More on freedom of speech: the case of Ben Garrison

In this interesting post cartoonist Ben Garrison describes how his work was maliciously misappropriated by anti-Semites. He is associated with the Australian group OHPI (Online Hate Prevention Institute), and the piece appears on their site.

I am well disposed towards OHPI, but unsure about their stance on ‘hate speech’ – on p.7 of this report you can see that they want to make ‘vilification on the grounds of religious belief or practice’ unlawful.  Who gets to decide what’s a reasoned critique and what is vilification – and do we want to outlaw such vilification anyway?

Garrison’s original cartoon could be said to tap into antisemitic tropes itself, but I assume, as Garrison seems so honestly indignant to have his work coopted by racists, that he is unaware of the connotations of the words and images he uses.

Here he explains his horror at seeing his cartoons distorted to include antisemitic images and motifs.

Hate speech is not free speech. Hate speech is blind, one-dimensional blackness. It is not reasoned debate.  It loudly shouts for the murder of human beings and Facebook is providing them a megaphone for that purpose.

I’ve seen the first sentence (or variants thereof) many times.  But hate speech – even though it certainly isn’t ‘reasoned debate’ – is an element of free speech.  And the people who produced the nasty variation on his cartoon weren’t loudly shouting for murder.

However it is reasonable to expect Facebook to police such material, partly because it’s racist (so contravenes their own code) and partly because it is defamatory – it leads people to believe that Garrison is antisemitic.  That’s a separate issue from hate speech/censorship.

At first glance Garrison’s rather colourful, brash cartoons look a little like those of Latuff. But in fact he is a right wing libertarian – gun control and Obama are favourite targets. There’s a link to the Libertarian Party on his website where you can find a brief political quiz.  The first proposition to consider is:

Government should not censor speech, press, media, or internet.

So there’s at least a potential contradiction between Garrison’s libertarian principles and his (entirely understandable) response to his experiences.

I don’t blame him for appearing to be inconsistent – these are tricky enough questions to adjudicate in any circumstances, let alone when one has been subjected to such persistent trolling.  But – if driving hateful material off Facebook turned out to have little impact on its dissemination, if other sites were happy to give haters a platform – would Garrison want to ban certain kinds of images or discourse outright?