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The dictionary defines hate speech as "speech that attacks, threatens, or insults a person or group on the basis of national origin, ethnicity, color, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability."
A growing number of Americans, especially younger Americans, agree with the idea of restricting offensive speech. More and more western nations have adopted laws making "hate speech" illegal. In France, a group of people wearing T-shirts calling to boycott Israel were fined thousands. In England, a woman was arrested and jailed for several hours for misgendering a transgender woman. Some Americans believe the U.S. should take the same route and stop protecting hate speech as free speech.
I believe that we can't have free speech if we don't protect hate speech. I can think of at least six good reasons for protecting hate speech.
1) There Is No Consensus on What Constitutes Hate Speech
I often use quotes around hate speech because it is such an ambiguous term. The definition of hate speech is not the problem; the interpretation is. One person might see a comment as an "attack," another might see it as fair criticism. What people find "insulting" or "threatening" is subjective.
Some people might be insulted if a straight, cisgender person gave a speech entitled, "The Problem with LGBTQ+ People." If they could get that speech shut down because it is offensive, what's next? Should we then shut down a lecture called "The Problem with Straight, Cisgender People?" Do we shut down an atheist for telling us the problem with religious people? Or liberals for telling us what they think is the problem with conservatives?
If we all agreed that hate speech shouldn't be protected, we still wouldn't know where to draw the lines in the sand. Someone is always offended by something, be it a joke or an opposing position on a serious issue. If we rid the world of everything that someone considered offensive, we would have to get rid of everything.
2) Censoring Hate Speech Doesn't Stop Hate
You can't erase hateful thoughts and attitudes by erasing words and ideas. History shows us that one of the best ways to draw attention to an idea is to try and censor it.
The concept has come to be known as the "Streisand Effect." In 2003, Barbra Streisand sued a photographer for posting an image of her house on a website. Before she took legal action, the photo went virtually unnoticed. After she tried to have the photo removed, the site started getting nearly half a million visitors per month.
Censored things intrigue people. Censored people begin to look like underdogs, martyrs, or even heroes to others who might be inclined to agree. This is what starts underground movements and helps them gain momentum. This is what sparks revolutions.
It's proven psychology: when you tell people they can't do something, can't have something, or can't hear something, the desire for the thing will increase.
3) It's Better to Know Where People Stand
If someone is harboring truly hateful, vicious, or dangerous ideas, it is better to let them say it out loud and in public. Let everyone know where they stand.
If hateful people don't speak out publicly, they don't get condemned publicly. When you give people with bad intentions enough rope, they tend to hang themselves.
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As stated in my previous section, censored ideas will get attention. It's better if a threat is exposed and out in the open so that it can be opposed and proven wrong.
Former President Barack Obama said it best in a 2012 UN speech: “...the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech—the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect."
4) We Shouldn't Be Afraid to Discuss Different Perspectives
It is natural for people to become offended and inflamed by thoughts and words with which they disagree; that doesn't always mean those ideas aren't worth hearing. Some perspectives can be hard to hear, and may initially be met with resistance; it doesn't mean these perspectives are always entirely wrong.
We can't be so arrogant as to think that opposing viewpoints are always born out of malevolence or ignorance. We can't assume that when we don't agree with someone, they have nothing to offer that might be worth consideration.
The goal should not be to censor the things we don't like to hear. Instead, we should strive to get past our own triggers so that we can listen to different viewpoints, and even come to better understand the people who hold them.
5) The Power to Censor Can Be Abused
The problem with the power to censor is that power can be, and often is, abused. Consider the Nazis for a moment. A lot of people feel that Nazis don't deserve the protection of free speech when spouting hatred and bigotry. Ironically, though, stifling free speech is precisely the authoritarian tactics Nazis in Germany used to help Hitler rise to power.
Don't assume that people in charge of the flow of information will always agree with you or will always have good intentions. The next person in power can use any restrictions on "hate speech" to censor your perspective or ideas.
As is said in one Supreme Court ruling on a free speech case (Healy v. James, 1972), "The freedoms... guaranteed by the First Amendment must be accorded to the ideas we hate or sooner or later they will be denied to the ideas we cherish."
6) We Can Punish Hateful Speech Without Compromising Freedom
Hateful speech isn't without consequence. We can peacefully protest those people and ideas that concern us. We can use our right to free speech to speak out against them. We can stop listening to content makers when we find their material objectionable, or we can respond to those materials with an alternative perspective. People who don't follow the rules, regulations, or terms of service set in private companies can be penalized without facing legal penalties.
We don't have to compromise our right to free speech to punish those who spout hateful ideas. We can self-regulate without giving those in power the ability to censor people.
Free Speech Already Has Enough Limits
There are already limits to free speech that have been put in place to protect the public. You can't yell false things just to cause a panic. You can't incite violence. You can say what you want, but not on a residential street with a megaphone at three in the morning, or by climbing up on a stage and hijacking the mic at someone else's event. You can't slander someone by deliberately lying about them. You can't make false claims about your product.
All the limits to speech in the U.S. right now were made to prevent people from hiding behind the First Amendment when they threaten the safety of others or try to trample other people's rights. It's fair to control the manner in which a message is delivered; we shouldn't give the government, or each other, the right to penalize the message itself.
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This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2019 M S Beltran