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Essay: Should hate speech be banned?

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  • Published: February 26, 2021*
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  • Should hate speech be banned?
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The First Amendment to the Constitution grants the five most fundamental freedoms for every citizen. Among them, Americans treasure the right to free speech above all others. There’s a reason why freedom of speech is a principle human right. Free speech acts as the core of all liberties. It reinforces all other human rights, allowing society to develop and progress. Yet a growing intolerance from the left side of the political spectrum is threatening Americans’ ability to freely express beliefs without fear of retaliation. The ability to express our opinion and speak freely is essential to bring about change in society. A free society depends on the free exchange of ideas. Nearly all ideas are capable of giving offence to someone. Thus, when it comes to hate speech, free speech must apply to all and the First Amendment should continue to protect hate speech under any circumstances. Free speech — genuine free speech that tolerates the ideas we find most offensive such as hate speech — must apply equally.

Although Americans cherish the right to free speech, this right has become endangered. This debate over hate speech has been a controversial topic for decades but the Unite the Right rally, also known as the Charlottesville white nationalist rally, has re-invigorated the debate. Due to this event, many people have called to legally prohibit hate speech. Thus, people such as white supremacists, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, Klansmen, and neo-Nazis will no longer have a platform to freely express their thoughts. Although this idea might seem pleasing, this legal ban on hate speech will actually do more harm than good. A legal ban on hate speech not only ruins our country’s need for deliberative democracy, the process will face complications due to the fact that a legal definition of hate speech does not exist and also risk the chances of freedom of speech being impaired as a whole. Although I do not agree with any of these individuals’ ideology, I am writing primarily to argue to the United States House of Representatives that any bills banning hate speech should be voted down.

Growing up in Burma, I witnessed many close relatives who faced imprisonment for merely criticizing the military or the President of Burma, U Htin Kyaw. Series of acts such as the Telecommunications Act were repeatedly invoked by the Burmese government to prosecute those who “insulted” the military or the president. Only when I moved to the United States did I realized how powerful my voice could be and the limitless opportunities I have to freely express myself.

The reason why refugees from third-world countries glorify the United States as the land of the free is solely because their citizens are bestowed rights, such as freedom of speech, the mere second they are born. Even Justice Samuel Alito stated how, “Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect freedom to express the thought we hate” (Volokh 2). By implementing restrictions on hate speech, the greatest asset America possesses slowly loses its significance and power. While citizens from other countries are fighting and dying consecutively for their basic human rights such as freedom of speech, we, in America, are actually fighting to diminish our own people of their own human rights.

When discussing whether or not hate speech is a part of freedom of speech, the opposing side includes mostly of liberals who are pro-ban hate speech. My naysayers argue how hate speech and free speech exist as two entities separately. To be more specific, my opposing side’s main claim is that hate speech should not even be counted as speech at all – how hate speech can be censored without freedom of speech being compromised. This position is concisely and eloquently represented by George Lakoff, a distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, who stated, “since being free in a free society requires not imposing on the freedom of others, hate speech does not fall under the category of free speech” (Lakoff 25). His words reflect the sentiment at the core of pro-ban hate speech supporters’ ideology—hate speech can also be a physical strain on the freedom of other individuals. Therefore, Lakoff and his supporters believe the best solution to overcoming hate speech is to completely ban it. However, by banning hate speech, we’re intrinsically harming free speech from each individual as well. Lakoff argues how those hate speech harms the rights of other and yet banning hate speech would also harm the rights of the perpetrator. Thus, Lakoff’s argument is contradictory— we should protect the rights of a specific group of individuals yet harm the rights of others?

Accordingly, my opposing side’s second argument lies in the fact that no rights are absolute. Rights must be limited by respects for others, and by the needs of society as a whole. The British Lord Bhikhu Parekh writes, “Although free speech is an important value, it is not the only one. Human dignity, equality, freedom to live without harassment and intimidation, social harmony, mutual respect, and protection of one’s good name and honor are also central to the good life and deserve to be safeguarded. Because these values conflict, either inherently or in particular contexts, they need to be balanced” (Mutabazi 3). In response to Parekh’s argument, I agree that no rights are absolute. Even Michael Tomasky, editor of The Daily Beast, agree how “nearly every idea in the Bill of Rights has limits” (Tomasky 2). Additionally, no amendment, not even the first amendment, is absolute without the direct consent of the people. However, I believe the essential point is that a democracy cannot legitimately restrict speech within public discourse, solely on grounds of the undesirable or even dangerous worldview expressed. Governments may certainly impose viewpoint-neutral ‘time, manner and place’ restrictions, e.g. on speakers’ noise levels or on avoiding obstructions to free circulation. Contrary to existing British, European and international law, however, I maintain that a full-fledged democracy cannot legitimately ban messages from general public discourse solely for their hideous philosophies.

Another problem that arises when trying to ban hate speech is a single, universal definition of “hate speech” does not exist. Because, hate speech exists as an ill-defined concept intended to be elastic enough to allow whichever clique happens to control our institutions at any given time to silence some of their opponents. As soon as we say hate speech is not permissible, we have just handed draconian powers of censorship which have no place in anything remotely resembling a democracy, over to the person or people allowed to define what that term in their opinion means. More specifically, 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. As the Daily Show’s Trevor Noah put it, “The side 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 calling Black Lives Matter hate speech?” (Bruzzese 7) Thus, with a wide-spread version of hate speech, determining what counts as hate speech could lead to confusion and disarray.

If everything becomes censored, then conditions for deliberative democracy will not exist. If people become deluded into thinking only one side of the argument or living in fear of publicly speaking their minds, where is the basis for reasoned debate that our Founding Fathers built the foundation on the First Amendment on? Democracy only works if reasoned debate in the public square is possible. For instance, Professor Chris Frost, the former head of journalism at Liverpool John Moores University, explained the importance of allowing every person’s view to be heard, and that those who fear to take on opposing ideas and seek to silence or no-platform should consider that it is their ideas that may be wrong. He said: “If someone’s views or policies are that appalling then they need to be challenged in public for fear they will, as a prejudice, capture support for lack of challenge. If we are unable to defeat our opponent’s arguments, then perhaps it is us that is wrong” (Timms 37).

Lastly, my third reason is this – hate speech and freedom of speech encompasses one another. Without the other, the latter would not exist. Free speech includes every view of an argument, not just the ones we want to hear. It is precisely the bans themselves which elevate mindless growls into expression of an identifiable worldview, through their customary formulations, and through the motives invoked for combating hate speech. Both of those elements identify some content in the speech that is intelligible as hateful. An inarticulate content is a lack of meaningful content: it conveys, by definition, neither a hateful, nor a loving, nor any other message. If it were devoid of meaning, there would be no basis for comprehending it, let alone banning it as hateful.

It isn’t just white supremacists, neo-Confederates, and Klansmen who will be affected by the ban on hate speech. The whole country would be affected as well. Even if a legal ban on hate speech were constitutionally permissible, legal restrictions on hate speech would actually create more problems than they would solve. Most in Congress assert that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic hate speech. Additionally, while some would classify sexist and hateful remarks to women as hate speech, our president might instead classify them as “locker room talk” (Severns et al. 3). To summarize, every individual has different perspectives on an issue and while some words might seem innocent by some can sound profoundly menacing to others. Thus, “if individuals cannot be sure what might be judged hate speech they will have no choice but to avoid all manner of legitimate speech for fear of legal jeopardy” (Nossel 63). Many websites, and news organizations would have no choice but to employ hundreds of lawyers to help protect speech that anyone might consider their reports as offensive.

With all of these factors into consideration from both sides of the argument, my solution to this whole hate speech debate is simple and clear: we must continue to protect other’s right to free speech under any circumstances. Heinze, Professor of Law and Humanities at Queen Mary University of London proposes: “it is healthier for democracies to hear all the views that are held by politicians, rather than to shut them up —even when those opinions may be unpalatable to many” (Abdela 74). Our voice is one of the most powerful weapon we possess. Freedom of speech protects us from the government and enables us to live in a free society where we’re in charge of our own thinking and choices. “Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government,” said Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers and an author of the Constitution. “When this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved” (ShareAmerica). Many countries who aggressively police hate speech offer a cautionary tale: “Rwandan President Paul Kagame just won reelection to a third term with 99 percent of the vote, securing his rule for a tenure of at least 30 years in a political environment where all opposition is squelched. A leading political opponent, Victoire Ingabire, is serving a 15-year prison sentence for divisionism — for simply having pointed out that Rwanda’s genocide had Hutu as well as Tutsi victims” (Nossel 68). If the ban on hate speech is passed, the future of America will ultimately follow along in Rwandan’s footsteps. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “to rob a man of his freedom is to take from him the essential basis of his manhood” (King Jr. 84)

If the only way to determine a hateful point of view is your own point of view, then this isn’t a line of reasoning as much as it’s a circle otherwise pointless. This is the reason the definition of hate speech is so complicated. Every one of us belongs to a group. We all have a country, a color, a gender, a sexual slant, etc. We all have different opinions on what we consider is hateful. So, if being insulted on the basis of any of that is all it takes, we’ve all spouted hate speech. As far as concepts go, the concept of hate speech is practically useless. If it’s not enough that the definition is too broad, the right of free legally protects it, the concept of free speech logically requires it. The standards are subjective. The reasoning is circular. And perhaps worst of all is that it can apply to anybody with a political opinion. Therefore, the idea of banning hate speech is not a good idea for anyone’s sake. If free speech includes hate speech, claiming to support one but not the other is inconsistent. Therefore, the argument is that the idea, the concept of free speech encompasses hate speech. Therefore, if you endorse the idea and support the practice of free speech, only to make a giant exception for hate speech, you’ve contradicted your position on the issue.

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