Consider Magazine recently published their Point-Counterpoint issue for November 16 entitled “I Hate Free Speech.” The article offers to perspectives on the issue of free speech concerning hate crimes. One side offers a Mills like argument that speech should never be infringed upon and the other side argues that hate speech “incites violence and negativity” and therefore should not be protected.
I agree that hate speech probably incites violence and is morally wrong, but I still think we should defend it. Freedom of speech must be universal. It must transcend politics and morals because if it can be taken from one group it can be taken from any group.
In February 2011, an intoxicated John Galliano spewed an anti-Semitic tirade, saying comments such as “I love Hitler,” in a Paris bar. The scene was videoed using a cell-phone and posted on the Internet for all celebrity gawkers to view. Along with an international backlash from Jews and non-Jews alike, the Dior designer was fired from his job and faced criminal charges for his offensive remarks. On September 8, 2011, he was sentenced to pay a total of €6,000 (US$8,400) in fines after a French court found him guilty of giving public insults on account of race.
That same week, the U.S. Supreme Court extended First Amendment protection to the homophobic announcements of the Westboro Baptist Church whose founder, Fred Phelps, and members, picketing outside of a funeral for an American soldier killed in Iraq, held signs proclaiming, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “God hates fags” and “You’re Going to Hell.”
The difference between these situations exposes profoundly different views about the extent free speech should be allowed in a democracy. France imposes criminal fines for racial epithets, Holocaust-denial, anti-immigrant advocacy and other forms of “hate speech.” Germany, the Netherlands, and most other Western, liberal democracies do likewise.
The United States is the exception.
Although the U.S. shares most liberal countries’ disgust for hate speech, particularly the race and religion kind, the First Amendment reflects a unique limit to censorship of any kind. Galliano, if he had given his drunken rant in America, could not be prosecuted for voicing to his bigoted views. In the U.S., he would be a free man, although he would probably still face the international firestorm of criticism.
The framers of the Constitution allowed for the defense of bigoted speakers and their hateful speech because they, unlike the hateful speakers, were pragmatic. One insight they had was that trying to block the spread of an idea only lends it a scrap of legitimacy when it deserves none. By making the idea illicit governments increase its appeal and potential audience. Similar to prohibition only serving to make a black-market for alcohol, prohibition of hate speech only makes its occurrence more scandalous and interesting news.
I think that the movie American President best shows why free speech is important to the historical foundation of this country.
To foreigners, America’s protection of hate speech is baffling because they believe the rages of racists are not worth protecting. If America is to be the land of the free, then the First Amendment has to be more than words on faded parchment. The First Amendment was designed to protect exactly the kind of hate-filled garbage that spews from Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. There is, after all, little need to protect pleasant speech that no one disagrees with.
The U.S. Constitution protects such speech, not out of an excess of tolerance, but because even more than we dislike hate speech, the founder’s feared a government like the one that they just rid themselves from that has the power to decide what speech will be heard and what speech will be silenced. The U.S.’s historical need to be a land of the subjugated, such as the Puritans, to express themselves continues today.
Another reason for hate speech protection is that the best way to counter harmful beliefs is to force them to compete against other ideas that will expose their defects. For example, critics of Galliano (who happens to have both Jewish and Gypsy ancestry) were quick to point out that during World War II his affection for Hitler would have earned him a one-way trip to Dachau.
As a Jew I have no tolerance for anti-Semitism. It is unfounded, irrational, and has no place in civilized society. But I know that trying to remove the rights of anti-Semites to speak out would only reinforce their claims (in their minds) that Jews have some large hidden conspiracy to destroy everyone’s rights. Anti-Semitic irrational ideas will not flourish in a culture that allows the flow of rational ideas because, given the opportunity to see both arguments in their entirety, people will see the irrational ideas as a farce. It is countries that are far dissimilar from the U.S. and only allow one set of ideas that people should fear. Best way to avoid only having one set of ideas: allow people to say what they want to say.
I feel that if the power of hate speech is enough to incite hate and violence then it should be enough to silence it.