Most Americans have a vague sense that the First Amendment means we can gather just about anywhere and say just about anything so long as we don’t break the law. But that’s not how it works. It is increasingly common for fanatics to shut down meetings held by people with whom they disagree.
It’s not very hard to stop a public meeting. If your political enemy has rented a meeting room in a hotel, the hotel will cancel if you scare it enough. Many managers will panic if you threaten to hold a mass protest in their parking lot. And if you can get a few hotheads to phone in death threats, you can be nearly certain of ruining someone’s event. Death threats are illegal, but phone calls are hard to trace.
I have what could be called a professional interest in this problem, since I have had to scuttle two successive conferences because political opponents pressured the hotels that had agreed to host them. It does no good to appeal to the First Amendment, because it doesn’t apply to private citizens, like hoteliers. No one has an obligation to rent you a ballroom, print your articles, accept your radio ads, or listen to you. If no Internet Service Provider is willing to give you space on his server you can’t even set up a website. If your political opponents are powerful enough, they can pretty well silence you—unless you own your own hotel, newspaper, or radio station.
The First Amendment does apply to government at all levels. But as we will see, even governments can sometimes wriggle out of their obligations.
Most people don’t care about this because they have never thought or said anything controversial. But as soon as you say something that might “offend” someone—that is to say, if you say something free-speech laws were meant to protect—you could be squelched.
Not surprisingly, “diversity” of the kind we are supposed to be celebrating brings more competing interests and more private attempts at censorship. The rise of Islam in the United States, for example, has touched off something like a religious war. Muslims and their critics both try to wreck each other’s events. So far the Muslims are coming out slightly ahead.
One player in this game: the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). It is the most high-profile Islam-booster in America, and has raised hackles by filing lawsuits, sneering at America, and being a general pro-Islamic pest. When CAIR planned an annual fund-raising banquet for October 24, 2009, in Arlington, Virginia, a New York-based non-profit called the Clarion Fund tried to persuade the Crystal Gateway Marriott to cancel the event. Clarion Fund spokesman Alex Traiman said that one of the main speakers was to be Siraj Wahhaj, an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and a member of a 2005 panel called “Replacing the Constitution with the Koran: ‘Conquest or Conversion’ through Islamic Propagation.”
The hotel would not budge. Marriott spokesman Thom Puccio pointed out that renting a room is not an endorsement. “We’re simply providing the space for them to hold their events,” he said. Marriott critics wanted to know if he would rent space to the KKK. Mr. Puccio refused to comment.
The implication, of course, is that legal or not, some groups are so foul everyone should shun them. The SPLC’s Heidi Beirich [Email her]used this obviously well-practiced line to try to scare the Federalist Society’s Dallas chapter from hosting VDARE.com Editor Peter Brimelow (in a debate!) last year. But it is slippery ground. Someone might think your group is foul. Siraj Wahhaj is apparently not as foul as an Exalted Cyclops, so CAIR got its banquet.
Next year, however, things went less well for the Muslims. Something called Hizb ut-Tahrir had planned a day-long frolic at the Chicago Marriott Oak Brook in the Chicago suburb of Oak Lawn. Hizb ut-Tahrir, which wants a world-wide Islamic state, is banned in Turkey and in several other Muslim countries, but its first Oak Lawn event in 2009 reportedly attracted 800 people. The theme of the conference, which it promoted with this slick video: “Fall of Capitalism—Rise of Islam.”
In 2010, however, its hotel cancelled. The Marriott was mum about its reasons, but something called Responsible for Equality and Liberty claims to have told it that Hizbites “have been involved with or threaten violence against other people.” Ayman Hamed, who organized the conference, complained that “everything that is said about us is pure lies and absurd.” That may be true for all we know, but his group was turfed out all the same.
Muslims struck back in 2011. The blogger Pamela Geller, who is known for strong views on Islam, was invited by a Tea Party group to speak at the Hyatt Place Houston/Sugar Land in Texas on October 18. Her talk on the nature of Sharia law had to be switched at the last minute to the Sugarland Community Center after the Hyatt pulled the plug. “In light of the business disruptions anticipated with this event,” explained a spokesman, “it has been moved to an alternate location.”
As usual, the hotel was cagey about what sort of “business disruptions” it anticipated. But Miss Geller claimed that “CAIR thugs” had intimidated the hotel. “Hyatt Place Houston/Sugar Land received a couple of threatening calls and they surrendered to Islamic supremacists without even firing a shot,” she wrote.
Likewise in 2011, Saqib Ali, a former Maryland state legislator tried to quash a panel that was to be held on October 29 in Annapolis, to discuss the subject, “Is Sharia Law Coming to Maryland?” He denounced the speakers—Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy and former US Representative Fred Grandy—as “the nation’s leading Islamophobes,” calling them “conspiracy theorists, McCarthyites, racists and anti-Muslim fanatics.” [Muslim groups, Hispanic advocates, gays aim to shut down Maryland conservative conference, By Kenneth Timmerman, The Daily Caller, October 25, 2011]
His campaign to get the Annapolis Doubletree Hotel to cancel the event was officially endorsed by CAIR, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and the Islamic Society of Annapolis. But the hotel held firm, and Mr. Ali complained that the conference was “just exactly the same as if the Ku Klux Klan is coming to town and the Doubletree hotel decided to host them.”
Again, we find the assumption that there are some groups everyone should kick around.
The next month, something called the Preserving Freedom Conference that was to explore the question of “The Constitution or Sharia” on November 11 in Nashville did get the boot. A spokesman for the venue said that the Hutton Hotel had received “veiled threats that there were going to be protests that could easily erupt into violence.”
It was unclear who had made the threats, but Amir Arain, a spokesman for the Islamic Center of Nashville, praised the hotel for cancelling a meeting that he said “promoted bigotry” and had no place in Nashville. (It’s remarkable how quickly immigrants pick up weaselly phrases like “promote bigotry.”) Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch were forced to give their talks at the Cornerstone Church in Madison, Tennessee, instead.
The anti-Islam forces tried to win one for their side that same month when CAIR of California scheduled its “15th Anniversary Gala” fundraising banquet at the Hilton Hotel in Anaheim, California. This time it was a group called DefendChristians.Org that blasted featured speaker Siraj Wahhaj, the famously unindicted co-conspirator who has reportedly called for the overthrow of the “filthy” US government and the establishment of Islamic law. Spokesman Gary Cass of DefendChristians explained that
“Hilton Hotels must hear from thousands of patriots,” adding: “Muslims have successfully threatened and pressured other hotels to cancel conferences that tell the truth about Islam. It’s time we tell Hilton to stop doing business with CAIR or we will stop doing business with Hilton.” Hilton Hotel to face protests for hosting CAIR event | Tables turned as Muslim group’s banquet features ‘terror co-conspirator’, WND, November 4, 2011
A number of other websites also urged readers to “do your part to stop the CAIR conference.”
But the Hilton ignored them. Mr. Cass led a demonstration in front of the hotel and pronounced himself “shocked that the Hilton Hotel will allow such an event on its property.”
The score so far: it seems that CAIR and its allies have managed to mau-mau two hotels into cancelling events they didn’t like, but the organizers scraped up substitute venues. Several CAIR events have come under pressure, but the council has not yet had to vacate premises. Only the Hizbites seem to have been left completely in the cold and had to call off their event.
What is going on?
As someone who has been on the receiving end of this kind of thuggery, I’m firmly on the side of the Hizbites. Of course, they should never have been let into this country, but since they are here, they should have the right to rent a hotel room just like anyone else. If they really are plotting terrorism or trying to overthrow the government, that is for the FBI to worry about, not the anti-Hizbites.
There is a principle here: Legal organizations should be able to hold public meetings. If you don’t like what they say, don’t attend.
Both the Muslims and the anti-Muslims liken each others’ gatherings to a Klan rally—as if that were justification for hotels to lock them out. But the Klan is as legal as the American Cancer Society. Hotels, as one spokesman pointed out, just rent space; they don’t promote or denounce their customers. The KKK should have the option of putting on fund-raising banquets at a Hilton, just like CAIR—so long as they don’t light a cross in the ball room.
Needless to say, our national climate of victimhood and hair-trigger claims of discrimination makes everything worse. People now seem to think they have a Constitutional right not to be “offended”. What’s more, they take offense at the mere thought that something they don’t like might be said in a place where they can’t even hear it. The result is self-righteous bigotry that makes a mockery of traditional freedoms.
In some respects, the worst chumps are the hotel owners. Every time they are tormented into shutting down an event they forego revenue and may even have to pay a cancellation fee that can amount to five figures. And every time a hotel lets itself be pushed around by yahoos, it encourages others to act like yahoos. If hotels had any sense, they would draw a bright line: rent to any group that is legal and behaves itself.
But because hotel managers are cowards, if you have determined enemies, you can be sure of your space only if it is government-owned and thus legally obliged to host you. Last year, the National Policy Institute put on an event for racially conscious whites at the federally-owned Reagan Center in Washington, DC. Lefties roared and snarled, but the Reagan Center shrugged them off.
However, in these terrified times even governments can behave shamefully. In November 2008, David Duke planned to hold what he called the International Euro Conference at the Whispering Woods Hotel in Olive Branch Mississippi. Mr. Duke had an iron-clad contract with the hotel, which did not permit cancellation except for force majeure reasons, such as war or a state of emergency. Lefties threatened demonstrations and mayhem—there were reports they had said they would kill the hotel manager and his family. So what did DeSoto County, Mississippi, which does have a First Amendment obligation, do? Instead of protecting the hotel manager and the Duke conference, it declared a state of emergency—which gave the hotel an excuse to break its contract.
It would be hard to think of a more cowardly abdication of police powers. A justifiably indignant Mr. Duke managed to find a hall for a truncated conference.
It is important to note how exceptional this repression is. During the much-denounced McCarthyite period—which anyway lasted less than a decade—the Communist Party of the U.S. was always able to hold public meetings, even though the U.S. was engaged in a Cold War against a Communist superpower. Not one white nationalist country exists today, much less threatens the U.S.
Still, there are precedents. In the 1830s, slavery and abolition were the hot questions of the day, and plenty of people were happy to muzzle dissent. In 1836, Maryland imposed a penalty of 10 to 20 years imprisonment on anyone promoting abolition, and Virginia did the same. In Charleston, South Carolina, former governor Robert Hayne led a mob that invaded the post office and destroyed abolitionist pamphlets mailed from the North. Throughout the South, books and newspapers were vetted for dissent on slavery. [John Ashworth, Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 140f.]
Abolitionists could not hold meetings in the North, either. On July 4, 1834, the American Anti-Slavery Society read a Declaration of Sentiments to a mixed-race audience in Manhattan. The idea of blacks and whites mingling socially was so outrageous to New Yorkers that they broke up the meeting and sacked the homes of leading abolitionists. There were 11 days of lawlessness despite the efforts of the National Guard because rioters thought equal treatment of blacks would lead to miscegenation. [Elise Lemire, “Miscegenation”: Making Race in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), pp. 59, 83.]
In Philadelphia, abolitionists could not rent space for meetings, so they built a grand building of their own. William Lloyd Garrison and Angelina Grimké took part in a three-day celebration to dedicate the building, but by the third day, Philadelphians had had enough. On May 17, 1836, several thousand people gathered—including the mayor—and burned the building down. The fire department showed up—only to make sure neighboring buildings did not catch fire. The mob then burned down the Friends Shelter for Colored Orphans. A police committee set up to look into the burnings decided that they were justified. [Elise Lemire, “Miscegenation”: Making Race in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), pp. 87-91.]
It is hard not to notice what yesteryear’s battles over abolition and today’s battles over white advocacy and Islam have in common: irreconcilable views that grow out of “diversity,” whether of race or religion.
But perhaps our century is not so barbaric after all. The people who shut down my meetings have not yet tried to burn down my house. Still, in any free society, one man’s self-evident truth is another man’s blasphemy. Most Americans say they believe in free speech; it’s time they let people practice it.