Since the founding of America and the establishment of the Bill of Rights, specifically the 1st Amendment, there have been significant challenges to balance free speech with the competing interests of public peace and order. Groups have been targeted because of race, ethnicity, gender, class and religion in order to scapegoat for social, economic and political ills. This has been a phenomenon across every era, every society and every category of humanity, not just an American problem. Without a doubt, speech can be a powerful political tool used to intimidate and harass particular groups to reduce their voices within the political structure, even to the point of annihilation of groups, as seen in the holocaust and genocides committed across the world. But do we need more hate speech legislation in the US or is the balance currently right? Let’s look at the issues.
Hate Speech Legislation In The US – A Complicated Matter
The challenge for the American system of governance, a Constitutional Republic, based upon the principle that all are created equal is to find the balance between competing rights. While government actions, such as Affirmative Action, desegregation, among others, have sought to redress wrongs, these efforts have led to other wrongs, such as cases of reverse discrimination, lowering of standards, such as those to enable women to be assigned to direct combat units and other forms of discrimination. Multitudes of court cases are testaments to the difficulty in balancing the scales and far too often government interventions swing the pendulum too far, rather than seeking the correct standard of all being equal under the law.
Problems with defining “Hate Speech”
In both international and American human rights advocate groups, there are increasing calls for additional measures to deal with “hate speech”. The problems begin when trying to define hate speech. Taken to the levels of some countries, such as Iran, citizens can be prosecuted for blasphemy, proselytizing or apostasy for converting away from Islam. Given the highly partisan and divided state the country is in, political activists frequently resort to accusations of hate speech in order to silence political opposition. Another tactic is to increase the vocabulary of words considered racist, sexist or other offensive speech. A great example of this is a Portland, Oregon school principal stating that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are racist due to “white privilege”.
The fundamental problem in trying to regulate “hate speech” is that it is impossible to have a free flow of ideas, discussions about solutions to problems or resolving conflicts without potentially offending one or more groups. When hate speech is linked to offending and specially protected groups, rather than actual threats of harm, political discourse and liberty is lost. The risk is that, like many government actions, the cure is worse than the disease. Put simply, when the government considers some to be more equal than others under the law, injustices result and all liberty is at risk.
Balancing religious liberty and free speech is a particularly thorny problem when “hate speech” enters the picture. Various groups, such as gay rights and atheist groups have sued Christian individuals and groups for “hate” speech or public displays of faith such as prayer at a public event, yet have not targeted Muslim or other religious groups for the same conduct. Utilizing the court system to suppress speech and religious liberty is becoming a political intimidation tactic, rather than legitimate redress of wrongdoing. While the Supreme Court has ruled that school children and teachers retain their free speech rights, including religious speech, except during instructional class times, out of a fear of offending someone and being sued, school officials have on more than one occasion denied Christian students and teachers their free speech rights.
My Field Experience
As a female entering into a male dominated field, with some strongly against women being in law enforcement, I experienced my share of challenges. A few officers worked to sabotage my efforts, others were hostile and refused to respond to calls I was assigned to. That said, there were men who took time to mentor and support my efforts. Once they knew that I wouldn’t buckle under pressure or leave them in the lurch during a fight, many more welcomed me aboard. Over the years, I had the opportunity to see this same process go on for most new officers, male and female and learned that it was less about being female and more whether or not a given officer could perform the job. While there were still a few that remained unmoved, the fact that most officers were fine with female officers once they proved themselves, served as a valuable life lesson.
As I gained further experience on patrol, observing human behavior, this cycle of initial resistance, over time leading to acceptance and tolerance when left to themselves was repeated over and over again. It was only when force entered into the equation that problems arose. As increased training in community oriented policing and conflict resolution improved, law enforcement often plays a critical role in providing a neutral party to assist each side to consider the other side’s perspective in disputes between racial, ethnic and cultural groups without interfering with free speech.
During a time when there were just basic laws affirming civil rights of all citizens, recognizing African Americans as such, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and Washington Carver, among so many others, give great examples of rising above hatred and winning others away from hatred, thereby changing social mores. Reading their original writings gives great insight into defeating hatred. Government stopping hate speech is much like government stopping gun violence, to ban speech or guns only changes the weapon used and ends up killing liberty.
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Do you think hate speech legislation in the US as it stands is effective or do social groups and institutions, such as civic groups and churches do a better job of dealing with hate speech? If hate speech laws are passed, will the laws stay the same or continue restricting more speech? I welcome your thoughts and comments below. Alternatively come join the debate on Twitter by using the hashtag #hatespeech.