Ethics @ work: Defensive for being offensive?

Limiting offensive speech curtails freedom of expression.

Business ethics 88 (photo credit: )
Business ethics 88
(photo credit: )
An interesting recent local case highlights the ethical question of offensive speech. What are the standards that define unacceptably offensive speech? And how should those standards be enforced? The case involves the Hitler parodies on YouTube. The 2004 German movie Downfall, starring Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler, features an emotional scene in which Hitler responds to the realization that all is lost with an angry outburst at his generals. About a year ago the clip began to appear on YouTube with various parodic subtitles. In one version, Hitler is enraged that his Xbox account has been canceled; in another, his car has been stolen. An Israeli version with Hebrew subtitles shows him livid at getting a parking ticket in Tel Aviv. A few weeks ago, organizations representing Holocaust survivors in Israel asked YouTube to remove the Hebrew video, on the grounds that it hurts the sensitivities of the survivors to see the man who murdered millions of their people presented as a figure of fun. Is YouTube indeed the right address? In the US, there is a graduated level of censorship for offensive material: Only the most severe violations are illegal; less severe ones are a matter of editorial policy; the most ethically ambiguous are left to individual judgment. The only speech forbidden by law in most US states is that which presents a clear and present danger, such as inflammatory "fighting words" or falsely shouting "fire!" in a crowded theater. Such statements fail two tests: they involve much harm and little benefit. Inflammatory statements can be dangerous and have little inherent value. They can generally be made in noninflammatory ways if the real point is to make your views known. YouTube adds an additional, very significant layer of self-censorship. Their community guidelines prohibit many kinds of content, including pornography, antisocial activities, gratuitous violence, shocking or disgusting content, hate speech and harassment. For offensive content that doesn't violate these, there is a different kind of recourse: voting with your feet. As the YouTube guidelines say: "Some of the content here may offend you - if you find that it violates our Terms of Use, then click the button that says 'Flag' under the video you're watching to submit it for review by YouTube staff. If it doesn't, then consider just clicking on something else." YouTube's policy doesn't cover the Hitler videos, and so the clips have not been removed. Of course, survivors can easily avoid seeing these clips, but the deeper problem seems to be that the protesters don't want merely to personally avoid seeing these clips; they don't want anyone to watch them. It doesn't merely offend them to personally see Hitler being made a figure of fun; it offends them that Hitler is being made a figure of fun. This is a much different issue and one that directly curtails freedom of speech. The "fighting words" doctrine basically says that if you consider a law enforcement official a "racketeer" for trying to stop disruptive preaching (an actual case of a man arrested in New Hampshire), you should make your case in a YouTube clip, not to his face in front of a crowd. But if you curtail any expression of offensive views, it means that citizens are materially less effective in telling the world that Xbox devotees take their hobby too seriously or that the parking situation in Tel Aviv is grave. Expression on YouTube should be limited as little as possible. It is a forum open to everybody and where every viewer can vote with his feet. It even enables you to "piggy back" on an ideological opponent, indicating that your video is a response to his. In my opinion, the proper address for the survivor organizations would be to turn directly to the creators of the clips and ask them to voluntarily remove them. Better yet, they should make an impassioned and persuasive case for their cause and post it as a response to the offensive clips right on YouTube. Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in the Jerusalem Institute of Technology.