Public Comment

Free Speech vs. Hate Speech

By Leon Mayeri
Thursday January 07, 2010 - 08:40:00 AM

As the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, Berkeley residents have long honored the responsibility of speaking truth to power in the name of advocating social justice and racial equality. After all, the Free Speech Movement (FSM) was born directly from the efforts of civil rights activists to set up an information table on Sproul Plaza promoting CORE (The Congress on Racial Equality). While as a matter of legal technicality, the principles of free speech encompass even the most odious racist hate mongering, the true moral authority of the FSM was born out of the desire to speak out and organize against racial and ethnic bigotry. Thousands of outraged Berkeley students would not have spontaneously surrounded for 32 hours a police car that was attempting to arrest Jack Weinberg on Sproul Plaza on Oct. 1, 1964. It is inconceivable that this would have happened had Weinberg been distributing “literature” claiming that Jews deserved the Holocaust or that some Jewish groups actively aided and abetted the Holocaust to further their own parochial political interests.  

Incredibly, 45 years later, Berkeley’s only remaining community newspaper has become an open forum for hate mongers the world over to peddle these and other blatantly anti-Semitic distortions in the name of “free speech.” Several years ago, the Planet opened its pages to the poisonous lies of an Iranian student living in India, Kurosh Arianpour, who claimed that Jews fully merited all of their historical persecution from time immemorial, including the Nazi Holocaust. In last week’s Planet, a crackpot public access TV “journalist” from Atlanta, Jack Jersawitz, blames Zionist oriented Jews for actively colluding with Adolf Hitler and his Nazi henchmen in carrying out the Final Solution against millions of fellow Jews in order to strengthen the political case for a Jewish state in Palestine. 

To disprove the absurd falsehood of this baseless lie, one need look no further than the life and political career of the late progressive Bay Area congressman, Tom Lantos, who barely escaped the Holocaust in Budapest as a child. During his many influential and highly respected years serving in Congress, he was perhaps best known for his tireless advocacy for memorializing the Holocaust and for championing the safety and security of Israel. How likely is it that a man as well educated, worldly and influential as Tom Lantos would zealously promote the cause of a new nation and a political movement like Zionism, if, in fact, the Zionist movement had been conspiring with Nazis to kill him, his family, his relatives and his whole community in exchange for a few lives or to find a supposed common interest in destroying European Jewry with a murderous madman like Adolf Hitler. The mind boggles at the absurdity and odious falsehoods of these baseless and divisive allegations!  

Why does the Berkeley Daily Planet insist on publishing an endless slew of letters maligning Jews and Israel supposedly in the name of upholding “free speech?” No newspaper—even the Planet—publishes every racist rant or hateful and lie-filled screed it receives without exercising any editorial oversight or judgment. In fact, it is very instructive to Google the names of Kurosh Arianpour and Jack Jersawitz to note that a careful analysis of the results reveals that no other newspapers anywhere in the world have apparently thought fit to print any letter either has submitted. Why not, one must ask? Is the Berkeley Daily Planet the only suitable venue for their anti-Semitic laden views? Sadly, it would seem so. What a truly pathetic distinction!  

Indeed, very recently the editor of the Planet, Becky O’Malley, opined at length that the pages of the Berkeley Planet were (rightfully) not open to junk science after she determined that there was no merit to paranoid and baseless claims about the dangers of flu vaccination. In this one case, Becky O’Malley seems at long last to have finally awoken to her basic responsibility as a newspaper editor to fact check wild allegations. In speaking to real doctors and medical experts, she realized, to her credit, that if the Planet published false and injurious myths about the dangers of vaccinations, her paper could help trigger a local public health disaster. If only Becky O’Malley would realize that publishing racist libels is equally damaging to our fragile multicultural social fabric. Just as the unvaccinated can irresponsibly spread flu germs which can cause needless and preventable suffering and even death, so by promulgating bigoted and divisive falsehoods through her newspaper, Becky O’Malley purposefully chooses to tear apart the foundations of mutual tolerance and understanding which unite Berkeley residents of all backgrounds.  

We should all condemn the latest anti-Jewish distortions printed in the Planet. We should all insist in the true and original spirit of the Free Speech Movement that the editors of the Berkeley Daily Planet apply reasonable community oriented standards in rejecting for publication letters and editorials which are manifestly false and laced with bigoted and malicious intentions against any group.  


Leon Mayeri is a lifelong Berkeley resident. 


Editor's Note: I agree with Mr. Mayeri that the letter in question should not have been published in these pages. Including it violated several guidelines for Planet opinion pages. First, it was not from an identifiable local writer, and we try to prioritize local writing as much as possible. Second, it was not addressed to the Planet, but to a third party—the anti-Planet website dpwatchdog—and we prefer to run only letters addressed to our paper. Also, the writer's language and rhetoric were unusually intemperate, perhaps in part because the anti-Planet website to which the letter was addressed is couched in even more intemperate language. Finally, though his point was a bit hard to follow because of the florid writing, the writer, who identified himself as being Jewish, seemed to be making factual assertions regarding historical questions about Zionism and Israel which were at best questionable, probably were untrue and certainly would be hurtful to many because of the extreme way they were expressed.  

For all of these reasons, I did not approve this letter for publication. However, because of a mistake based on misunderstanding a verbal instruction, an overworked layout person copied it into the paper on a back page at the end of the letters column late on deadline night. I didn't see this page before it was sent to the printer, so I didn't know the letter had been included. Several friends and family members called me after the issue came out to say that they thought the letter was quite inappropriate and should not have been used. I agreed and immediately removed it from the online version of the paper. 

I drafted an “editor's note” like this one, apologizing for the mistake, which was intended to run in the next issue of the paper alongside Mr. Mayeri's commentary. But because I ended up in the hospital that day, neither his complaint nor my note ever made it into print. Another letter which voiced similar objections, signed by several Jewish community members, did appear in the paper while I was out sick.  

We regret the error.  

—Becky O’Malley