Legality and justice: Hate speech, property defacement, or freedom of expression?

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So, this controversial video is going around the internet, in which a woman is arrested for spraying pink paint over an NYC subway ad that reads “In a war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

While Mona is spraying the ad, another woman, Pamela, attempts to physically prevent her from painting over it and at one point uses her camera equipment to try and shove her away from the ad.

I originally read of the incident on Political Fail Blog, via a Facebook post. Today, I read over a long Facebook comment thread between my classmates that inspired me to write about the incident. A lot came up in this thread, but I’d like to explore an issue that I think of often: does legality equal justice? How about legitimacy? This ad was legally sanctioned by a NYC judge; defacing a subway ad is illegal. But many people find the ad offensive, and onlookers as well as internet commentators applaud Mona’s action. So who’s right, and what does the whole incident mean for social justice?

Two Facebook posters noted that breaking the law, and doing so with graffiti, are historically accepted and even successful means of activism. Mona contends that her action is “freedom of expression, just as [the ad] is freedom of expression.” But nonetheless, one is legal and the other isn’t. I contend that legality is as fallible as the humans who created it, and therefore does not automatically equal justice or legitimacy. Now, in the interest of a peaceful and orderly coexistence, I am not suggesting we all treat the entire governing structure as illegitimate whenever we don’t like it and just do whatever the hell we please. But I will assert that it is our responsibility as citizens to think critically about the law, to discuss when it does and does not appropriately protect our freedoms, and, when we determine it is unjust, to use our full range of means to have it changed. In this case, our freedom to express religious and cultural opinions is juxtaposed with our desire to live free from hate speech. Mona implied they were both rights, and exercised her right to the later.

When legality sides with injustice there are a number of historically accepted and successful tactics available to activists, including the similar but distinct civil disobedience, noncooperation, and nonviolent direct action (NVDA).

Civil disobedience involves directly breaking a law that the activists finds to be unjust. Ex: Entering a public space, such as a school, that your are legally excluded from based on your race, gender, sexual identity, etc.

Noncooperation involves not cooperating with a law or norm in order to draw attention to a cause and/or express opposition to injustice. Ex: Staging a sit-in that disrupts normal activity. While a demonstration may be illegal, it is often directed at a different legal or normal injustice, such as marriage inequality.

NVDA includes a wide range of tactics that are often noncooperative and civilly disobedient, and also intended to put direct pressure on actors who uphold unjust laws or norms. Ex: Blocking the entrance to the NY Stock Exchange to prevent the ringing of the opening bell. While possibly illegal and definitely noncooperative, this action also directly disrupts and pressures actors at the major corporations on Wall Street to change their actions or experience further disruptions.

I would label this NVDA, in that Mona was taking direct action against a practice she finds unjust. It could also be said that she was engaging in civil disobedience by breaking a law she felt is unjust: the law that says one can buy hate speech in the NYC subway for $6k. (Also at issue: $ = speech?) And for those who have said that, no matter how offensive the ad, she shouldn’t have defaced it: that’s the point. Mona, like many activists before her, refused to cooperate with the social norm and the legality that says this hate speech is acceptable while her pink spray paint is not. All of these tactics are indeed accepted and historically successful means for bringing about social change. In fact, statistically, nonviolent tactics are twice as successful. (An interesting discussion is whether or not property defacement constitutes violence, especially public property.) What’s my point here? If Pam can rightfully buy that add for $6k why can’t Mona rightfully spray paint over it?

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