The Myth of Free Speech in North America

3013986707_f0cf3e54e7_nFor ages, we in the democracies of the West have prided ourselves on our right to express our opinion on a variety of issues without constraint. Living under the protections afforded to citizens of democratic nations, we have regularly and freely demonstrated for an array of causes we have held dear. From anti-government protests, marches for LGBT rights, and demonstrations in support of gender equality, to mass actions in the name of causes as diverse as animal rights and climate change. Indeed, we are blessed to live in a society where the expression of our opinions via blog, tweet, or Facebook post does not bring severe consequences for us and our families, unlike our less fortunate counterparts in more authoritarian states. Nevertheless, there do remain particular issues, discussions of which remain heavily circumscribed even in democratic environments such as ours, where free and open expression do indeed carry significant costs, and “freedom of speech” becomes a myth. One such issue is the demonstration of support, especially by students, for the human rights of the Palestinian people under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

I recently came across the website of a group called “Canary Mission”. An introductory video entitled “Canary Mission: Radicals Exposed” explains the group’s purpose.[1] “Today college campuses are filled,” the video claims, “with anti-American and anti-Semitic radicals, waving Palestinian flags and placards, and screaming apartheid and murder”. This quote is followed by a clip of an angry pro-Palestinian protester, assumed to be representative of other activists involved with the cause, shouting racist slurs. “A few years later,” the video continues, “these individuals are applying for jobs within your company, there’s no record of their membership in radical organizations. No one remembers their yelling profanities on campus or attending ‘Jew hating conferences’ and anti-American rallies. All evidence is eradicated, and soon they will be a part of your team”.

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 10.21.30 AMThe creators of the Canary Mission website have constructed alarmingly detailed profile pages for scores of individuals around the world – largely student activists – who have proclaimed their support for the upholding of Palestinian human rights. Priding itself as a source that enables employers to quickly search someone’s name in order to check if they are a “radical anti-Semite or anti-American,” the Canary Mission website is, in effect, a politically-motivated blacklist, a vestige of the intolerant and exclusionary mindset we nowadays do our utmost to shun. Profile pages include student activists’ photos, biographies, and snippets of their pro-Palestine quotes. If you click on some of these profiles, you will notice from the activists’ bios and quotes that most of them, far from being “radicals”, exhibit almost no evidence of being the inveterate “Jew-haters” the websites’ creators wish to portray them as. Of course, this is not to say that none of these people have said anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli things online – reprehensibly, some of them have. For the most part, however, most of those who now find themselves on a blacklist that aims to curtail their opportunities for advancement are simply proclaiming their support for Palestinian human rights, saying and doing nothing that could be interpreted as anti-Semitic or inimical to the welfare of Israelis except by the most partisan observer. That students who proclaim their support for Palestinian human rights, most of whom do so out of human compassion as opposed to some diabolical motive inspired by hatred and intolerance, can now freely and libellously (and reflexively, by some) be ostracized as “radical”, “anti-Semitic”, or “anti-American” only highlights the fact that, today, one cannot in fact express his/her opinion on this contentious issue without fear of future consequences.


It is important to note that no websites exist that have compiled a database of pro-Israeli persons who have posted racist, “anti-Arab” or “anti-Palestinan” content, although plenty such people exist. Even if such a website did exist, it is much likelier that the consequences of being on the Canary Mission are worse for one’s future than being on an “anti-Palestinian” blacklist. In their controversial article about “The Israel Lobby” in America, influential political scientists Mearsheimer and Walt highlight how “key organisations in the [Israel] Lobby make it their business to ensure that critics of Israel do not get important foreign policy jobs”. They claim that many people in the lobby, news reporters, and academics “cannot even imagine criticising Israel”.[2] “The Israel Lobby” is just one piece among many well-known articles and books that demonstrate how individuals and organizations need to show a pro-Israeli stance rather than a pro-Palestinian one in order to avoid falling victim to libellous charges of racism and intolerance.

This fear of proclaiming support for Palestine proves justified when there are dozens, if not hundreds of cases, of people losing their current or potential jobs because of it. Just type the words “anti-Israel fired” or anything of the likes into any search engine and you’ll find an abundance of results. A well known case is that of Steven Salaita, a professor from the University of Illinois who was fired for pro-Palestinian tweets during the 2014 Gaza War.[3] Academic Juan Cole was similarly denied a tenured position at Yale for proclaiming pro-Palestinian “political views which apparently ought to be off-limits on college campuses”.[4] Also, Norman Finkelstein was denied tenure by DePaul University in view of his notoriety as an acclaimed critic of Israel.[5] One cannot deny that some of those people who have lost jobs have indeed posted blatantly anti-Israeli tweets or posts. One such person was Wael Mansour, who voices Disney’s Donald Duck in its Arabic-dubbed productions, and tweeted, “I truly wish #Israel is demolished, I hate Zionism, I have so much hate inside me with every single child they murder or land they seize”.[6] Clearly, such remarks are full of prejudice. But even those without prejudice and who simply exclaim their support for the human rights of those in Palestine are punished. For example, NDP candidate Morgan Wheeldon was forced to resign after his Facebook post from 2014, which has since been deleted, was brought to the surface. He posted, “One could argue that Israel’s intention was always to ethnically cleanse the region — there are direct quotations proving this to be the case”.[7] His quote is by no means anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli. Are the people who criticize the Syrian regime anti-Syrian? No. One who criticizes government policy is not “anti” that country or the people living in it – this distinction must be clear. Wheeldon also carefully writes “one could argue”, showing that he is not explicitly proclaiming support for Palestine. Yet, he was forced to resign. Better yet, to “save his reputation”, he wrote, “I am not now, nor have I ever been an anti-Semite,” he wrote in a statement to the media. “I condemn terrorism and believe that Israel is entitled to a secure state – one that is an ally and partner of Canada. I believe in, and hope for, a two-state solution, where both Palestinians and Israelis live in safety and security”.[8] Is it right that he, along many others, lose their jobs due to comments that have not even an inch of anti-Semitism or anti-Israelism in them? No, it is not.

Does posting anti-Palestinian content have similar consequences, however? Of course it does not. Running a similar search on Google, you will not be able to find more than a handful of people who have been fired for “anti-Palestinian” posts. One of the only examples was that of two attorneys Bruce Raticoff and Gary Sheres, who were fired for posting Facebook comments such as, “That’s why the Palestinian people are considered the cockroaches of the world, burn them to the ground”.[9] This comment is clearly racist, yet is one of the only cases where someone in North America has been fired for posting anything that seems anti-Palestinian. The amount of people who get fired for “anti-Palestinian” posts does not approach the magnitude of those get fired because of “anti-Israeli” posts.

Perhaps the Canary Mission’s most productive achievement will be to inadvertently highlight a wider problem specific to North America. Granted, many were aware of the scale of the problem long before the ominous appearance of this website: one cannot voice an opinion that sounds even vaguely pro-Palestinian without at least some fear of punishment – a cost that may indirectly hamper even one’s family given the consequences for the range of one’s advancement opportunities in our fiercely competitive world. Perhaps even more painfully, they also know that they can voice their views on an array of other topics, ranging from political issues to drug legalization to LGBT rights, with minimal if any consequences. These privileges do not hold when it comes to expressing pro-Palestinian views.

It is clear that if you speak your mind on this issue, you risk being punished. Ultimately, you can lose your current or future job. Yet, do we not condemn nations, such as Saudi Arabia, that limit freedom of speech and punish people for nonconformity? Do we not pride ourselves on being “democratic nations” where we can express our opinions and be “free”? If we have to be so scared when it comes to voicing our opinion on this one issue, is there really freedom of speech? Not only does this limit our democratic rights, but it also limits debate and the ability to see both sides of the argument. Many of us feel fear in expressing our opinion and feel like criticizing one party to the conflict has minimal consequence whilst criticizing the other has much more.

Those who want to stand up for Palestinian rights should be able to, just as those who want to stand up for Israeli rights should. For now, supporters of the stateless, destitute and dispossessed Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza feel like they need to be careful when it comes to voicing such support. Although this article does not criticize either Israeli or Palestinian actions, but, rather, the notion that unrestricted free speech still reigns supreme in our democracies, it has still been posted as anonymous for the reasons mentioned above. The author knows that if there is a hint of criticism in the article, their future, too, could be jeopardized.

Photos:© scottmontreal, Flickr Creative Commons ©Thomas Hawk, Flickr Creative Commons