There has been a recent surge in the argument that “hate speech isn’t free speech,” and quite frankly, I find it ridiculous and counterproductive. So let’s settle this once and for all: hate speech is absolutely a part of free speech.
First Things First: “Hate Speech” Is Subjective
As The Daily Show‘s Trevor Noah put it, by banning “hate speech” we intrinsically put free speech at risk:
“The side effect of free speech is that there will always be hate speech. If you ban one, you risk banning the other. Like, you might call Ann Coulter hate speech, but then what’s to stop Jeff Sessions from call #BlackLivesMatter hate speech?”
— Trevor Noah
There is no single, universal definition of “hate speech.” If hate speech were to be legally banned, it would give unstable leaders like Trump the ability to censor whatever he considered hate speech at the time. Inscribing in law that the government has the power to censor certain speech would be a disaster: it is naive to think that power wouldn’t be eventually abused to censor minorities. Requiring the government to be a bias filter is not only unconstitutional, it is also destructive. It is not the government’s job to police everything citizens say. Think George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984 where the government punished you for every little thing you thought and said… it’s not a good system.
Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 29, 2016
Under Trump, view-based government censorship would be inexplicably dangerous.
So What Is Free Speech?
I think there is a huge distinction that is often not made clear enough. Free speech is granted by the government and the government only. It essentially means you cannot be arrested for what you say (with the one exception being threats and violence because they are not covered under the protection). So that means, in the eyes of the government, anything you say (except for threats and violence) is a valid expression of your governmental right to free speech. Now just because the government protects you does not mean you will be consequence-free. I’ll say it again: just because free speech grants you governmental protection doesn’t mean you will be consequence-free. For instance, a company can reasonably fire someone if that employee is bringing their neo-Nazi rhetoric into the workplace. While the government will not arrest that person, they are still susceptible to losing their job for disrupting the harmony and health of the workplace environment. (This is what happened with the Google employee fired for his paper on how females are biologically inferior to their male counterparts in STEM fields.) A company has every right to control the people in its workplace: if toxic rhetoric is brought into the company, the offenders will most likely be removed.
And furthermore, citizens have every right to ignore other citizens. Despite what Internet trolls think, their right to free speech isn’t being infringed upon when you block them or delete their comments. Citizens do not owe free speech protection to each other, because that is not what the First Amendment is about (it intentionally only mentions Congress).
Often when people argue alt-right hate speech is a part of free speech, they don’t mean that the offenders shouldn’t go unpunished, just that it technically isn’t illegal.
— Trevor Noah
The ACLU Isn’t “Corrupt” For Supporting Free Speech
The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) was recently unjustly put under fire for legally representing Jason Kessler, the organizer of the Charlottesville rally, in challenging the city’s last-minute effort to revoke his permit. The ACLU in no way condoned the white supremacist hell-storm that ensued, tweeting out this message:
For those who have been asking about the statement from our colleagues in California: pic.twitter.com/5q5Nk2kXkA
— ACLU National (@ACLU) August 17, 2017
It is a logical fallacy to claim that by defending someone’s right to free speech and right to protest, the ACLU supports whatever it is that they are saying. (In fact, that is the argument neo-conservatives make: that by defending the legal rights of terrorists, legal groups are promoting terrorism, and that by defending the constitutional rights of illegal immigrants, they are promoting illegality). The ACLU never defended the violence, it merely protected the constitutional right to the First Amendment. And it matters that they protected that right because when a group you support wants to get a permit to protest, judges will almost always look at the legal precedent, meaning what other judges have decided in similar cases before. Here is an example:
“The ACLU recently sparked controversy when it announced that it was defending the free speech rights of ‘alt-right’ activist Milo Yiannopoulos after the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority refused to allow ads for his book to be displayed on public transit. Lost in the debate was that other groups the ACLU was defending along with Yiannopoulos were also censored under the same rule: Carafem, which helps women access birth control and medical abortion; the animal rights group PETA; and the ACLU itself. For representing Yiannopoulos, the civil liberties group was widely accused of defending and enabling fascism. But the ACLU wasn’t “defending Yiannopoulos” as much as it was opposing a rule that allows state censorship of any controversial political messages the state wishes to suppress: a rule that is often applied to groups which are supported by many who attacked the ACLU here.”
— Glenn Greenwald From The Intercept
If precedent becomes set that neo-Nazis and white supremacists do not have the right to free speech, you better bet that means some judges will start to say #BLM protestors and Pride Parades don’t have the rights to permits and to free speech—it is a two-way street. So when you claim “hate speech isn’t free speech,” please know that you are actively putting at risk the ideas and morals you are fighting to defend.
It Is Not Illegal For Neo-Nazis To Use Their Rights
I would like to get one more point across: the issue is not that neo-Nazis and the alt-right are making use of their rights, instead, it is what they think that is the true problem. White supremacists are not in the wrong for their act of speaking, rather it is what they actually say. Therefore, why would you censor and criminalize their right to speak if it doesn’t get to the crux of the issue?
— Alex Abdo from ACLU
Censoring people will not magically change their mind. In fact, it is more likely that they will become further engrained into their odious thought process. It is the difference between hitting the mute button and actually shutting off the TV, the former is a temporary, surface level “fix” whereas the latter is the much more permanent and beneficial solution. There are true dangers to alt-right speech because it can fuel systematic oppression and harmful stereotypes, but the answer to that issue is not to strip citizens of their rights, but rather to further the conversation and generate as much support for minorities as possible.
In conclusion, claiming “hate speech isn’t free speech” is counterintuitive because by doing so, you weaken the protections of the groups of minorities you are trying to protect.