By Darshan Kalola
The Supreme Court has ruled on several occasions that hate speech, at least in a legal context, does not exist. Any speech excluding libel and words that directly incite violence or public harm is protected by the First Amendment.
Recently, however, some on the political left are advocating for “hate speech laws.” These laws would criminalize offensive remarks, especially those which are racist, homophobic or misogynistic in intent.
At first glance, this appears to be a sound idea. After all, we all want our dialogue to be free from expressions of hate, especially those which insult our identities. Hate speech causes unnecessary pain and has no utility whatsoever.
Nevertheless, governmental regulation of speech is a Pandora’s box we should keep closed. Hate speech laws necessitate an answer to an intractable problem—what is hate?
Everyone has their own opinion. Just as a single story can be presented by the media in dramatically different ways — what someone considers to be hate speech could be seen as an innocuous remark by another.
Try flipping between CNN and Fox News sometime. Though both profess to provide the objective truth, one source’s coverage is often at odds with the other’s. I don’t imagine they will reach a consensus on what is hate speech anytime soon.
What will happen, as has happened in the past, is people and organizations characterizing hate in whichever way is most profitable to them.
Do you believe our president or other politicians should have the ability to arbitrate between what is hate and what isn’t?
I hope not. It only takes one scroll through President Donald Trump’s Twitter to recognize that he is allergic to even the most reasonable of criticisms levied against him. He would likely claim an attack against his policy as a form of hate speech. Given he already treats his opponents like garbage, what would our country be like if he could retaliate with the power of the law on his side?
For this reason, the left should be the most concerned about freedom of speech. They have worked, after all, on behalf of disenfranchised people for decades. They stood with African Americans during the Civil Rights Era and the LGBTQ+ community during the fight for same-sex marriage. These campaigns for equality could not have been possible without truly unhindered speech. It’s one of the few resources these minority groups actually had.
Let’s not forget — much of the country initially resisted both of those movements. At that time, hate speech laws would have been obstacles for activists. It would have made their struggle much more difficult since much of what they were saying was offensive to someone. Luckily, our First Amendment protected their right to speak and they were able to change people’s minds over time.
Future injustices will similarly be resolved through the use of free speech. We can’t afford to surrender such a right to the government. If history is any guide, we know that the government does not always act in the best interest of the people. Flip through the pages of a history book and you’re likely to find some account of the government’s moral failing, whether it be the internment of the Japanese, slavery or Jim Crow.
So, even though hate speech is an impediment for constructive discussion and incredibly painful, it’s regulation would be abused by those in power. The world would be much safer if there were no words of hatred or anger ever uttered, but we have to be realistic. There is no way we can eradicate hate speech without simultaneously sacrificing our most precious right to free speech.
Students share opinions around campus
“Should hate speech be prohibited by law?”
“Having laws in place probably wouldn’t stop people from using hate speech.”
“No, people have different opinions and I just think everyone is allowed one.”