Remember back when newspapers were considered the leading defenders of the First Amendment and free speech? Apparently that's over. Newsday (the newspaper I grew up reading) has an editorial up by Anne Michaud (the publication's "interactive editor") in which she argues for a dismantling of the First Amendment when it comes to "hate speech."
These kinds of arguments have become popular again lately (in fact, many in the US seem to think that hate speech is already not protected
under the First Amendment). Michaud's piece starts out by highlighting how she, herself, explored the white supremacist world a few years ago:
Years ago, I took a journalistic excursion through the nation's white supremacist scene. I read books and spoke with professors, attended rallies with Aryan Nations members and Keystone Skinheads and interviewed their leaders....
When I heard about Dylann Roof, I suspected that he had trod the same path.
And yet... Michaud did not become a white supremacist. She did not become a racist. She did not post racist, hateful things on websites, nor did she go and kill nine people solely based on the color of their skin. Perhaps, just perhaps, there was more to Dylann Roof's racist hatred than the fact that he could surf some ignorant, hateful websites. But Michaud does not consider that. Instead, she argues not just that we should carve hate speech out of the First Amendment, but that websites
should be held responsible if their users post such hate speech:
We should consider whether people who run such websites bear some responsibility for the nine dead at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. It would be difficult, but perhaps we should carve out an exception to our First Amendment protection of free speech to hold people accountable for hate speech.
I can totally understand the emotional appeal
of such a "solution." However, it is possible (as I believe) to abhor hate speech itself -- find it horrifying and ignorant -- yet at the same time worry about the implications of trying to carve it out of the First Amendment, and to undermine intermediary liability at the same time.
First, defining hate speech is not nearly as easy as some people like to believe. People think it's easy -- in the "I know when I see it" kind of way, but inevitably it becomes quite the slippery slope and turns into "people saying mean things." In political discourse, for example, it is not uncommon for people opposed to this or that political party to gleefully describe their hatred of members of that party. I find this to be silly and counterproductive, but should it be a crime? Should political websites that encourage comments attacking the opposing political party be held legally liable for such "hate speech?" Once you give an exception to "hate speech," you only open a huge can of worms as people look to use that exception as a way to stifle and censor all kinds of speech they dislike.
Remember that parody
of an anti-hate speech rant we wrote about a few months ago (which some still insist was not a parody but the actual beliefs of some people)? Whether it was a parody or the earnest feelings of someone, it shows how quickly things can morph from "hate speech" into really gray areas -- including political speech and just general opinions.
But here's the bigger issue that no one seems to discuss: outlawing "hate speech" doesn't make it go away. It doesn't make people stop feeling hate. Hate speech tends to be the product of ignorance, and making the ignorant feel persecuted and outcast doesn't tend to lead them to suddenly getting educated. It tends to lead them to even greater resentment, and often a belief that they must be on the right track, since people are trying so hard to shut them up. You combat hate speech with more speech, not by censoring speech.
People say horrible things. Things we absolutely disapprove of and disagree with. But they have the right to say those things, and others have the right to speak out against them, to highlight the ignorance, and even to shame and expose the ignorance itself. Shoving it down into the darkness and pretending that you've somehow "dealt with" the problem doesn't help. These people still believe what they believe. Hiding it in the dark doesn't change that. If this country really wants to confront racism and hatred, making it illegal for people to express their beliefs (no matter how ridiculous) doesn't fix anything. It just hides the real problems and lets them fester. You need to expose hatred, ignorance and bias if you're going to confront it. Yet, Michaud and others want to sweep it under the rug.
And, of course, Michaud uses the usual tropes
against free speech, including pointing out that there are some existing exceptions to the First Amendment, so there should be no problem adding more:
In the United States, we prize our freedom to speak, but in fact our laws uphold many limits. Sedition, for example, or advocating force as a way to change the government, is illegal. Threats, defamation, false advertising and profanity on public airwaves are illegal. Companies protect trade secrets, and courts enforce gag orders in legal settlements.
At least she didn't trot out "fire in a crowded theater." However, the fact that she leads with "sedition" is an interesting choice, given the history of the US using laws against sedition
to crack down on political speech the government disliked.
It's perfectly reasonable to be angered and horrified at ignorant, racist, bigoted hate speech. It's perfectly reasonable to be concerned about those who spew such idiocy. But it's something else entirely to argue that because you dislike it, others should not be allowed
to speak their beliefs. That a newspaper editor
would advocate for such things seems particularly bizarre and counterproductive.