Tuesday Talk*: Free Speech Or Vandalism?

There have been many videos of people tearing down posters of people kidnapped by Hamas, from Palestinians to Jewish students to an NYU SBA president to a dentist to a Broadway producer.

This is Anna Epstein. Anna is a student at Boston University and is seen here ripping down posters of kidnapped and missing Israelis. While fellow Jews are being beheaded, raped, and kidnapped by Hamas, Anna believes this is merely propaganda.

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Some have argued that the posters were illegally posted or that they sully the neighborhood, but this excuse is nonsensical when there are a wide swathe of posters and the only ones being torn down are the “kidnapped” posters. The alternative argument is that while the placing of posters is free speech, so too is their tearing down, speech of those who oppose the posters.

In some respects, this is akin to the argument that shouting down a speaker so that he can’t be heard or can’t continue with his speech is merely the free speech of the protesters, and it’s not their fault that their free speech is more effective at disrupting an invited speaker than the speaker’s speech. In many universities, this silencing of speech is addressed by rules prohibiting the disruption of speech, which is largely honored in the breach. Still, it “resolves” the potential free speech conflict by choosing to make the invited speaker primary and prohibit the disruptive speakers.

But the analogy falls short by the fact that this isn’t pure speech, but conduct with a putative expressive component. The people removing posters aren’t standing in front of them expressing their views, but physically tearing down and destroying a physical item the only purpose of which is to express an idea. And some have made this point quite explicit.

In contrast, some have argued that while it might be offensive, the act of ripping down “kidnapped” posters is every bit as much free speech as the act of putting them up.

Miles Grant, 24, takes down posters in New York “occasionally,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s the lack of context that gets me,” said Mr. Grant, who said he is Jewish and a self-described “pro-Palestinian who is not a Zionist.”

“It’s so obvious that they don’t care about people’s lives,” he said of those putting up the “kidnapped” posters. If they did, he said, the posters would include details explaining the history of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. “Why did this happen and what are the events that led to this happening? That is what’s missing, and I think it’s intentional.”

He said he had felt concerned at times that he would end up in a viral video, but he has not let that deter him. “I think they’re putting them up to bait people to take them down” he said. “I think it’s disgusting how they’re trying to destroy people’s lives.”

Bear in mind that free speech does not distinguish between rational ideas and the deep thoughts of 24-year-old boys.

A woman in Brooklyn, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she said her family would be upset by the publicity, said she had torn down “kidnapped” posters after a friend in a group chat for activists encouraged her. The posters, she said the friend told her, amounted to anti-Islamic war propaganda.

“So I said, ‘Cool beans, let’s take them down.’”

Regardless of whether you find one side more compelling than the other, is the act of tearing down (or defacing, as has also happened) as much free speech as the posting, or is it an act of vandalism even though it may have an expressive component? Is “speech” that precludes other “speech” different, and less worthy of protection? Does it matter that there are alternatives to express disapproval with the “kidnapped” posters that doesn’t involve tearing them down, such that both sides have the opportunity to express their views without precluding the other?

*Tuesday talk rules apply within reason.

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