September 29, 2015

GROSKAUFMANIS | Hate Speech and the First Amendment

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Law is interesting. I’ve always found it peculiar that the right to practice religion freely falls under the same amendment that defends the right to speak out against another’s religion. Despite this weird irony, I find myself defending this amendment wholeheartedly. We live, unfortunately, in an age of hate speech, or at least in an age that is hyper-aware of it. Surely verbal attack has been around as long as language itself, but in the last few years, hate speech has been an issue on radar in the United States and the world with instances of censorship and questions of how far is too far when it comes to freedom of expression.

When looking at this issue, it is essential to understand what hate speech is and how much of it is protected by the law. “Fighting words,” the lewd and obscene, libel, the profane and other expressions that threaten to disrupt peace and safety are not explicitly protected under the First Amendment, which is to say there are some limitations (although not many). Other forms of hateful speech, however, are protected and citizens are free to express their arbitrary disdain for others based on race, gender, class or other characteristics so long as they do so in a way that doesn’t violate these few restrictions.

The First Amendment presents a tricky complication to all who claim to support it: One can not legitimately advocate for it without simultaneously advocating for freedom of hate speech. If you claim to be a proponent of the first amendment but think hate speech should be eradicated, then you are being hypocritical, although well intentioned. We don’t get to pick and choose which convictions are acceptable to preach, regardless of how strongly they may oppose our own.

Censorship is something of buzzword lately, typically taking on negative connotations. Hate speech is another one, taking on equally (if not more) negative connotations. But if one wants to eradicate hate speech, they cannot do so without the adoption of censorship. Here, one must choose what they believe to be the lesser of two evils. The law in the United States deems censorship to be the more dangerous of the two, which is why we see that almost every form of personal expression is protected under the First Amendment. Right from the founding of our nation, it was deemed imperative that citizens be able to express even their most disturbing and unpopular opinions. Personally, my views align with those of the law. I think that hate speech is despicable, and yet I think the initiative to defend one’s right to spew it is one of the most important in our nation today.

As someone who likes to write — and who just likes words in general — I have always been wary of censorship. In middle school I read Orwell’s 1984 and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and figured I knew just about all that I needed to know when it came to limiting expression. Getting rid of words = bad, case closed. And I actually still stand by this for the most part. However, I now know that the issue is layered, and more complicated than most people — including myself — can totally grasp. When considering books, a new one to throw into the mix in Philippa Strum’s When Nazis Came to Skokie: Freedom of the Speech We Hate, which tells the story of how the American Civil Liberties Union controversially defended a group of neo-Nazis and their freedom to march through a town with more than 7,000 survivors of the Holocaust. The fact that such a case exists is a testament to how complex an issue this is, and how passionately some are willing to defend First Amendment rights. The actions of the neo-Nazis were indisputably evil, and even those who defended them had disdain for their practices. Therefore, this is a prime example of separating content of speech from the defense of the right to speak it.

It’s important to remember that there are victims in the fight for freedom of expression, and those who are hurt by hate speech are often brushed aside as collateral damage. Words are almost never just words. They take on meaning and inspire action, which can be good, but never is when in the context of hate speech. When viewing whether or not expression is worth defending, one needs to be conscientious of all issues regarding both sides of the debate.

However, I would argue that the dangers of censorship stretch beyond those of hate speech because limiting expression robs individual agents of the power to express dissatisfaction, oppression and truth. Censorship could potentially cut off a dialogue that has the power to save people. “But what if we only censor hate speech?” is a valid question, but one that oversimplifies the issue. Any limitation on personal expression opens the floor to others, and as stated before, we have no authority to pick and choose what should and should not be said.

If you look at it in terms of cost-benefit analysis, the First Amendment is worth defending, hate speech and all, based on all of the good that can come from individual expression, but also based on the potential danger that could come from inhibiting it. Autonomy is of immeasurable worth, and the fight to protect it is necessary despite the baggage that a small pool of hateful bigots attach to the movement.