Hate speech is abhorrent, banning it is even worse
Last weekend’s events in Charlottesville, along with the threat of future protests by white supremacist groups, have sparked a national debate about placing legal limits on hate speech. The thinking is that some views are so abhorrent that they should be banned, and their advocates should not be allowed to assemble in public.
As long as it’s still legal to do so, we’d like to declare our abhorrence at the suggestion.
The rights of free speech and free assembly are bedrock principles of American democracy and major reasons why America’s founders revolted against British rule. There was a time when speaking against the British monarchy was deemed treasonous and subject to prison or even death. Even today, it’s technically illegal to call for abolition of the monarchy.
In the United States, neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups are attempting a resurgence, bolstered in no small part by the sympathetic undertone of remarks issued on the campaign trail and in the White House by President Donald Trump. As repugnant as those groups are, it’s even more abhorrent to contemplate trashing the First Amendment to stifle their free speech.
Ahead of Trump’s inauguration, extreme left-wing groups began using the slogan “Punch a Nazi” as they advocated violent intervention to halt demonstrations by far-right groups. One self-declared anti-fascist punched white supremacist Richard Spencer, a Trump supporter, in the face on Inauguration Day while he was being interviewed on a Washington, D.C., street. It was not OK then, nor will it ever be.
Daryle Lamont Jenkins, a member of the anti-fascist movement, told National Public Radio on Thursday that violent confrontation is justifiable when police won’t stop white supremacists from marching. In other words, he believes in illegal vigilante action when police refuse to violate marchers’ constitutional rights.
Imagine how quickly our country would descend into anarchy if vigilante action ever did become justifiable. The minute it becomes acceptable to break the law to silence one group, all others become vulnerable to attack by anyone who disagrees with them.
That’s why the Supreme Court has repeatedly struck down government attempts to ban hate speech.
“A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all. The First Amendment does not entrust that power to the government’s benevolence. Instead, our reliance must be on the substantial safeguards of free and open discussion in a democratic society,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in one assenting opinion this year.
Companies such as Twitter and Facebook have a legal right to limit how customers use their sites. The government doesn’t. The moment Americans empower the government to tell them what they can and cannot say, our nation and its cherished democratic principles will be doomed.