In the wake of the Charlottesville terror attack, there has been a great deal of discussion over what types of speech should be legally permissible. On one side are those saying that white supremacist rhetoric represents an incitement to violence and should be illegal. While I am not a legal scholar, it seems clear to me that groups like we saw in Charlottesville have a constitutionally protected right to spew whatever political rhetoric they want in a public setting. It doesn’t become incitement until actual calls to commit criminal acts are made. The other side, championed by groups like the ACLU (and the white supremacists themselves), argues that hate speech and hate rallies are legally permissible and should be defended against any and all who would say otherwise. This side is just as wrong. Just because a legal right exists doesn’t necessarily mean it should, and the hatred espoused by white supremacists should neither be permitted nor defended.
On a Monday, we might hear someone say that sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will never hurt us. Then, come Tuesday, we might hear someone else say that the pen is mightier than the sword. Obviously, both of these sayings cannot be true. When someone makes the claim that words cannot hurt them, they disregard centuries of precedent that proves otherwise. Attempting to disassociate the pogroms of the 19th century, the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, Jim Crow era lynchings, the persecution of minorities by ISIS, and all the other hate-driven acts of recent history with the words that preceded them is both foolish and dangerous. Nazi Germany didn’t just sprout up out of the ground as the crazed “blood and soil” chanters seem to imagine. Instead, it came to be as a result of years of uncontrolled antisemitism and the circulation of race-based conspiracy theories throughout German society. Words can be used for incredibly positive ends, but all too often they are used to inflict pain on others.
Allowing the modern generation of hate-mongers to spread their rhetoric in the public square, online, and over the airwaves will inevitably produce violence, as it already has in Charlottesville. So, one has to wonder, why are groups like the ACLU missing the forest for the trees by enabling this vile speech? The answer is simple: Currently, there is a bizarre taboo over amending, or calling for the amendment of, the Constitution in any way, shape, or form. For some reason, we continue to believe that 18th century men knew what types of rights would be well suited for those of us living in the 21st century. Until elected leaders and the groups we’ve empowered to protect our rights break with this 18th century worldview, the rights of hate peddlers to say what they want will continue to be used to chip away at the collective rights of everyone else.
It’s often argued that taking away certain speech rights is a ‘slippery slope’ that will eventually result in the loss of all rights to engage in free expression. Unsurprisingly, no data or evidence is ever provided to reinforce this fallacy. Somehow, robust democracies that have placed limitations on free speech, such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and France, have managed to continue their traditions of public policy debate. This is because placing limits on harmful speech does not lead to any sort of limitation of socially beneficial speech. If it is true that the American political system is so fragile that banning Neo-Nazi rallies will lead to the inability to give policy input or speak freely about an elected leader, then our society is broken in more ways than we’d like to acknowledge. I don’t believe we’re that far gone just yet.
It is important to consider that the freedom of speech isn’t an inherent good. Like all other freedoms, it can only be considered good if it produces positive social outcomes. Unfortunately, right now it isn’t. Misinformation, fear, and hatred is at an all-time high due to near-absolute freedom to spread whatever conspiracy, lie, or deception through our means of mass communication. If we truly want to see a better tomorrow, it is time that Americans take the difficult step of analyzing just how free we want our free speech rights to be.