Is Hate Speech Free Speech?

The negative impacts of hate speech often get overlooked by a flurry of well-intentioned voices who trot out their lofty ideals of First Amendment rights buoyed by vague, noble-sounding notions of freedom of the press.

While, in theory, Americans have long held notions of the importance of free speech, this seemingly ‘enlightened’ position too often overlooks the worrying growth of hate speech online.

Hate speech aims at two goals. First, it is an attempt to tell bigots that they are not alone. Consider the words of Frank Collins, the neo-Nazi prosecuted in court in 1977 who said:

We want to reach the good people, get the fierce anti-Semites who have to live among the Jews to come out of the woodwork and stand up for themselves.”

Its second purpose follows from the first, namely that the ultimate goal of hate speech is to intimidate the targeted minority, leading them to question whether their dignity and social status is secure. Sadly, in many cases, such intimidation has its share of successes.

Judicial rulings on American free speech historically rely upon the assumption that speech exercised this way is nothing more than the extension of a thought, and not an action. If we consider it an action, then saying that we should combat hate speech with more positive speech is an absurd proposition; the speech has already done the harm, and no amount of support will defray the victim’s impression that they are not truly secure in this society. We don’t simply tell the victim of a robbery, “Hey, it’s okay, there are lots of other people who aren’t going to rob you.” Similarly, it isn’t incredibly useful to tell someone who has just had their religious beliefs publicly defamed, “There are a lot of other nice people out there.”

Tony Ortega has long claimed that his right to denigrate and attack those he sees as his enemies falls under this category of “free speech”.

In truth, he has this exactly backwards. Free speech isn’t an absolute right; no right is weighed in a vacuum. Courts across the nation have imposed numerous restrictions on speech. Fighting words, libel and child pornography (which Tony Ortega infamously defended) are all banned. Other countries merely go one step further by banning speech intended to intimidate vulnerable groups. The truth is that such speech does not democratize speech, it merely monopolizes speech. Women, racial or religious minorities feel intimidated and are left out of the public sphere.

It is this game plan, using the rights afforded by this country to undermine civil discourse and bring about division that Tony Ortega and those like him seek every day to enact. And they do so by playing these grand idea that hate speech online is simply a normal part of ‘the marketplace of ideas’.

But surely a true marketplace of ideas would co-exist with a multi-racial society open to people of all genders and religions. And it can, if we can stop the hate.

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