Friday, November 29, 2013

Hate Speech - The TIme Has Come to Regulate It

Hate speech is defined as “speech that attacks and is an incitement to hatred of a person or group on the basis of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.”  Hate speech is not a rational discussion of the pros and cons of a group’s values or actions.  It is targeted solely at the listener’s emotions.

There has always been a lot of hate speech in this country, but over the past few decades, it seems to be getting worse.  As in the past, hate speech is directed against various groups ... gays and lesbians, people of color, immigrants, pro-choice women and their doctors, Muslims ... with the object of either inciting the public to act against these groups, often through legislative action but also often through violence, or just denigrating their value as human beings.

Such speech has been deemed protected by the 1st Amendment’s right of free speech.  While that right is not absolute, the only limitations on speech approved by the U.S. Supreme Court have been incitement that created a clear and present danger of violence or illegal action, libel and slander, obscenity, “gag” orders to insure justice, or protecting consumers from false advertising, for example.

In each of these cases, someone was being harmed in a way that could not be practically countered in the “marketplace of ideas,” which is the function of free speech in a democracy.  While most European countries, and some others, banned hate speech after WWII because of the Nazi experience, the United States has not seen fit to do that.  The reasoning being that unless there was a clear and present danger, the hateful speech could be countered in the marketplace of ideas by other speech.

This reasoning may have had some validity in the pre-internet, pre-cable TV era.  But now it is a specious argument.  We live in an era where many people lead very polarized, insular lives.  Because of the advent of the internet and cable television, people now can and do listen only to news and pundits that agree with their point of view.  If they hear an opposing viewpoint, they dismiss it out of hand as being biased or ill-informed.

We also live in an age where information goes viral, which is to say that like a virus, the information spreads very quickly.  Given these two factors, together with the fact that guns are readily available and there seems to be less inhibition to using them against people, hate speech has a heightened  ability to cause a clear and present danger to the physical or mental well-being of an individual or group of individuals.  And it therefore should be banned.

Interestingly, the loudest opponents of such a law would be liberals, for whom the right of free speech is sacrosanct.  But as discussed, the right is not absolute, and such a law would not be a “slippery slope” leading to further restrictions on free speech.

Regarding those who create hate speech, they should not be able to disingenuously claim the protection of free speech.  The court has made clear that people are to be protected from a clear and present danger of violence.  In the case of much hate speech, it is clearly the intent of the speaker or writer to foment violence against individuals or groups based on an emotional hatred.  That one has no way of knowing whether someone will act on that incitement should not protect such speech.  By the time someone acts, it is too late.

And for those many instances in which hate speech deals with a legislative agenda, it should also be banned.  While there is certainly time for opposing viewpoints to be aired, the marketplace of ideas is not functioning very well in our current polarized internet/cable TV environment.  


But more fundamentally, hate speech has no place in a civilized society.  Just as a society has the right to protect consumers from false advertising and children from obscenity, society has the right and I would say the duty to protect people from hate speech.  Both the haters and those who are the object of hate suffer as a result of such speech.