Lately I’ve heard some talk from well meaning folks who would like Congress to enact a law prohibiting “Hate Speech.” Let me state with extreme prejudice why this idea is both un-American and likely anathema to those who might mistakenly at first support it.
In the first place, a law restricting speech, whether hateful or otherwise, is literally at odds with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment (emphasis mine) is first because it is primary and precedes all others.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
I will focus on the sections of the First Amendment related to freedom of speech and right to peaceable assembly.
Expression of thought, the combat of ideas, is essential to an open and free democracy. The Constitution of The United States of America guarantees us the right to criticize and lampoon as we see fit, whether the object of ridicule is the President, taxes, the military or notions concerning the self-evidentiary nature of the idea, “that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
In this country, we get to talk about these things without fear of arrest. Might we be censured? Absolutely. Publicly vilified? Of course. But unless and until statements are made that directly threaten someone’s well being, i.e. threats to kill or actions such as the proverbial shouting of fire in the tired, crowded and clichéd theater, then we, as Americans, have a Constitutional Guarantee that boldly states our right to express ourselves as we see fit, whether it is to espouse brotherly love or to champion things abhorrent. And what a right it is!
It is right for ideas and ideology to do battle in a public forum, for old school to be challenged by new rules and for fools to joust with kings. A call to ban “Hate Speech” is a call to retain the status quo. Every meaningful civil-rights advance from the abolition of slavery and voting rights for all, to equal rights for women and ending the persecution and imprisonment of homosexuals was considered both radical and hateful in its time. Am I comparing the rantings of far right Nazis and Klansmen to the noble work of John Brown, Frederick Douglass or Medgar Evers? Of course not. Nor am I comparing Elizabeth Stanton or Susan B. Anthony to Nathan Bedford Forrest nor Christine Jorgensen or Harvey Milk to Stephen K. Bannon or Fred Phelps, but each view point espoused by these warring factions were or are radical and historically were or could be considered hateful. Who exactly do you want deciding what speech fails the Hate Speech test? It is in the exchange of ideas that progress is made, not through State controlled censorship.
And it is essential to remember that laws banning Hate Speech will be reinterpreted with different standards in every state, every administration and every court. I can easily envision an Administration like Donald Trump’s declaring that the Islamic Crescent is a symbol of hate, banning its use and declaring Islam a religion of terror. Once that genie is out of the bottle it is awfully difficult to shove it back in. “Ultimate cosmic power, itty-bitty living space.” And if you dare say, “Can’t happen here,” then your here and mine are very different spaces.
And I have faith that progressiveness will win, that we do not have to mute and muzzle the barking hateful bitches that call for rancor and the suppression or regression of human rights. Right can best wrong and love can win over hate and I pray that in our desire to stifle the rabid we refuse to increase their power by banning them from the field. For it is in open combat of ideas that liberty shines and to employ the tools and tactics of tyranny and despots, to stifle free expression, is surely no measure of truth’s strength.
We, the people of The United States of America, are far too grand to feel a need to silence the ludicrous jabbering of Luddites out of fear that ugliness and raucous, rank prejudice can be victorious over progress and fraternity. We can win by being the light we wish to see rather than banishing dissent from the light.
I have faith in our ability to recognize and castigate darkness without falling victim to desperate, totalitarian measures. I hope you do too.