In the world we awoke to on November 8, 2016, a myth took hold among far too many progressive people that so-called “hate speech” — speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability — is not protected by the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court just made it very, very clear that is wrong. Offensive and hateful speech is as protected as any other. It is vital to protect all speech, for the road of prohibiting speech one disagrees with is a slippery one. There is a right to offend; deal with it.
A recent case, Matal v. Tam, focused on an all-Asian band called The Slants, who wanted to trademark their group’s name. “Slant” of course is one of a dictionary full of racist terms used to offend Asians, and the group wanted to push the word into the world’s face to disarm it, as gay men have done with the slur queer.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office said no, the group could not trademark the name The Slants because of the disparagement clause, which denies federal trademark protection to messages that may offend people, living or dead, along with “institutions, beliefs or national symbols.” This same reasoning denied the Washington Redskins’ trademark renewal of their team name in 2014, seen as disparaging toward Native Americans.
No more. The Supreme Court just ruled the government cannot use trademark law to stop people from promoting an (potentially offensive) name. That constitutes the government prohibiting free expression, a clear violation of the First Amendment.
The First Amendment protects offensive speech, Justice Samuel Alito wrote in this unanimous decision. “The proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate,’” he said, quoting the classic 1929 dissent from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.
(Trump-era snowflakes usually misapply Holmes’ famous line — not shouting fire in a crowded theatre — to justify banning offensive speech by claiming it incites violence. They’re wrong; it doesn’t work that way at all. The whole thing is laid out here.)
“The danger of viewpoint discrimination,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in The Slants’ case, “is that the government is attempting to remove certain ideas or perspectives from a broader debate. That danger is all the greater if the ideas or perspectives are ones a particular audience might think offensive, at least at first hearing. To permit viewpoint discrimination in this context is to permit government censorship.”
The ACLU called the decision a “major victory for the First Amendment.”
And… mic drop.
The marketplace of ideas needs to be broad and deep, and awful people must be free to spew terrible words, into it, so they can be exposed and bad ideas shoved aside by good ones. That’s how the Founders intended the system to work, that is how it has worked through over 200 years of controversy, and the Supreme Court made it clear this week Trump, Howard Dean, Milo Yiannopoulos or your favorite nazi have no place in trying to change things.
And though the Court didn’t feel the need to remind people that it has long ago sorted out questions about whether hate speech inciting violence justifies restrictions, or the obligation of campuses to provide platforms to offensive speakers, or cities to protect them and their listeners, I will. It’s all explained here. Stop trying to use fascism’s tools to silence free speech. Let them speak.