I was recently invited to participate in a panel discussion over the subject of “free speech.” Among the subtopics on the agenda are those of the Confederate monument controversy and the relationship between free speech and “hate speech.”
My schedule forced me to decline the invitation. However, even had this not been the case, I probably would’ve declined at any rate. The description of the discussion, you see, makes it clear that its organizers assume, first of all, that the distinction between “free speech” and “hate speech” is a meaningful one. In doing so, they presuppose as well the meaningfulness of the concept of “hate speech.”
Those who make these assumptions beg the question. These presuppositions themselves should be subject to discussion.
Is there really such a thing as “hate speech”?
If so, is there a non-arbitrary or effectively objective set of criteria for establishing it?
What is hate?
Is so-called “hate speech” of a different species than free speech?
If “hate speech” is not of a different species than free speech, and if the latter is something to be valued and protected, then why even bother mentioning “hate speech?”
If “hate speech” is a different species than free speech, then in what does this distinction between the two consist?
Is the distinction between free speech and “hate speech” either morally or legally relevant?
These are some of the questions that any discussion over “hate speech” must include.
However, it is equally necessary that such a discussion also subject to interrogation the concept of free speech, for it is painfully obvious that there is much conflict and confusion over it, especially among the self-styled champions of free speech.
Since space and time constraints preclude a more thorough analysis, some quick thoughts on these matters will have to suffice for now.
Invariably, those who invoke their “right” to free speech invoke at one and the same moment the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The latter, though, was originally intended to guard against the suppression of the speech of American citizens by the United States government.
Subsequent Supreme Court rulings would eventually recognize in the Bill of Rights individual protections against state governments as well. The point, though, is that one’s right to free speech or expression, at least as it has traditionally been understood in America for most of the country’s history, is a right against the government: Private actors are not obligated to give anyone a hearing.
In other words, if I refuse to allow you to hold a rally or deliver a speech on my front lawn or in my living room, I am most definitely not guilty of violating your right to free speech.
Depending upon the circumstances, I may be guilty of any number of things: breaking a promise that I once made to allow you to express yourself on my property, being unhospitable, closed-minded, intolerant, or uncharitable, say. But I cannot be accused of undermining your right to free speech, for if your charge was legitimate, this would in turn mean that I had an obligation to allow you to use my property for your purposes. To repeat, I could have no such obligation unless I made you a promise to this effect beforehand. And even then, non-performance on my part would not constitute a violation of your free speech.
First, if our agreement was informal—a handshake, say—then while I may be guilty of a moral offense, I still act legally.
Second, even if our agreement was formal or contractual, the only violation of which I could be guilty is a violation of the contract. This, though, is not a violation of your right to free speech.
All of this being said, it is of course true that any public or quasi-public institution, like a college or City Hall, that denied a citizen the right to speak on its premises—whether directly or by way of “the heckler’s veto”—would indeed be guilty of infringing upon that citizen’s First Amendment rights. A public institution, after all, is a government institution. As such, it has a Constitutionally-delineated obligation to not impede its citizens’ free exercise of speech.
More can be said here. For now, though, let’s turn to “hate speech.”
The first point of which to take note is that the concept of “hate speech” is a political, not an intellectual, construct. More specifically, “hate speech” is a politically partisan or Ideological invention, an ominous-sounding phrase that can be easily packaged into a bumper sticker or splashed onto the front of a t-shirt. It is a slogan with talismanic effects that its architects can use as an instrument by which to label and dismiss speech that they dislike, i.e. speech that threatens their agenda.
That this is so is gotten easily enough by several considerations:
(a)It is only ever those on the left who brand the speech of their political opponents as “hate speech.” Not only do those to their right refuse to reciprocate in kind; rarely do those on the right even use the term “hate speech.”
(b)The selection of examples of “hate speech” is blatantly arbitrary. For instance, white heterosexual men could declare from the rooftops their hatred of one another and yet this wouldn’t be regarded as “hate speech.” One friend or lover, in a moment of anger, could express “hatred” of another, and neither would this be considered “hate speech.”
Hordes of Black Lives Matter activists can block traffic and call for the murder of police officers, and yet this does not constitute “hate speech.”
Kathy Griffin can hold an image of a bloodied, decapitated head of the President of the United States—a Republican President—and yet this is not branded as “hate speech” (or, in this case, more precisely, hate expression).
Those who revile President Trump can gather in the streets and call (in some instances) for his death, a rapper can openly threaten to turn the First Lady into a prostitute, and those 60-plus million Americans who voted for Trump can be dehumanized by a Democratic presidential candidate as “irredeemable,” “deplorable,” “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobic,” “transphobic,” “anti-immigrant,” “xenophobic,” and “Islamophobic”—and yet none of this is regarded by the self-styled opponents of “hate speech” as, well, “hate speech.”
This list of examples could be extended ad infinitum.
Free Speech vs. Hate Speech: A Bogus Distinction
The distinction between free speech and hate speech is a piece of sophistry, much like the distinction between “human rights” and “property rights” that also became commonplace among leftist activists. Whereas the latter was used as a rationale to suppress property rights, so the former invention is being used now as a rationale for suppressing free speech.
Of course, everyone can find some speech to which they take offense, and there is some speech, doubtless, the majority of people will deem indecent. No matter: As long as those who lend offense express themselves legally (in accordance with the Constitution) and peacefully—as long as they refrain from behaving violently—then their speech is free and, thus, protected.
And this in turn means that those (like so-called “Anti-fascists” and “anti-racists”) who attempt to shout down those exercising their free speech, to say nothing of besieging them with violence, act criminally.
Jack Kerwick [send him mail] received his doctoral degree in philosophy from Temple University. His area of specialization is ethics and political philosophy. He is a professor of philosophy at several colleges and universities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Jack blogs at Beliefnet.com: At the Intersection of Faith & Culture.
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