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Shira Tarrant

Shira Tarrant

Posted: April 25, 2010 10:49 AM

Free Speech. Hate Speech.

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Sex slavery yields around $12 billion a year and harms about 4 million women, girls, and young boys around the world. On April 23, 2010 Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law the state's undocumented immigration law (aka "breathing while brown"). Psychology professor Kevin MacDonald continues to receive attention for promoting anti-Semitic arguments and remains the darling of white supremacist bigots. Between 2006 and 2008, violence toward queer and transgender people increased 26 percent.

Connecting these global dots is the fact that hate-speech, hate-motivated violence, and gender-based crime can incite widespread fear, frustration, isolation, and anger, even among those who are not directly victimized.

And against the backdrop of human trafficking, immigration law, and gender violence, are ongoing debates about free speech, the foundation of our democracy. Three recent events on California college campuses highlight the line between free speech and hate speech, and the cultural biases that enables crime to flourish.

First, there's Dr. Kenneth Ng, an economics professor at California State University, Northridge. Until April 23, 2010, Professor Ng ran a website that helped customers negotiate the best price for "bar girls" in Thailand. Oklahoma State University professor and anti-sex trafficking expert John Foubert explains that "bar girls" are often under-aged, prostituted girls forced to have sex with up to 30 men per day.

The second case involves a conference on Chicana Feminisms organized by California State University students. The event held on March 18-20 focused on globalization and border issues, promoted increased communication between the community and academy, and featured artist-activists Alma Lopez and Cherrie Moraga. An article announcing the conference in the Cal State Long Beach Daily 49er student newspaper garnered anonymous homophobic slurs and death threats.

Finally, on April 15, an out-and-outspoken transgender student was attacked in the men's bathroom at California State University, Long Beach. The attacker singled out the victim, knew his name, and left him battered on the bathroom floor with the word "It" carved deeply in his chest.

These three cases are alarming but they are also instructive. They force us to ask -- and answer -- tough questions about whom we value and devalue in society. These cases require that we think about who is silenced or at risk for speaking up. As law professor and first-amendment scholar Mari Matsuda explains, before we can promote the right to free speech, we must ask who our society entitles to speak in the first place. Sometimes so-called free speech is actually hate speech. And hate speech can become a crime. In the case of the trans student assaulted in the bathroom, there was no pretense of free speech. This was an unequivocal violent crime. But the point is that cultural norms that promote hate enable violence to continue. Assaults (whether directly physical or obliquely expressed by word or pen) impinge on the safety and freedom from harm that is required in order to express one's views on sexuality, religion, politics -- and a host of other contentious topics.

Silencing free speech can happen by direct physical attack, verbal slurs, or by aggressive Internet comments that are posted using the cowardly veil of online anonymity. What happened at CSUN and CSULB are not isolated incidents. As members of the student activist group Concienca Femenil explain, the online threats sustained in Long Beach are deeply intertwined with recent hate violence at UC San Diego, UC Riverside, and UC Davis.

Verbal and physical intimidation dampens open dialogue and robust debate. When leaders, institutional authorities, and others in power fail to speak up, the damage is just as great. Silence is tacit complicity in a culture that wants some people to simply shut up.

So what can we do? We can each speak up, speak our truth, become informed, and promote more free speech, not less. In the case of Kenneth Ng, CSUN officials responded to grassroots protest stating, "Our commitment to gender equity compels us to see [Ng's website] as offensive; our commitment to expression urges us to tolerate words and pictures we find intolerant."

At the Daily 49er, student editors removed the offending online hate comments. And in the case of the student who bravely survived assault, the police continue to investigate. In the meantime, we must refuse to be silenced by intimidation. While police and administrators do their work, we can do ours by promoting free speech even in the face of hate speech. This sends a powerful message to all who struggle for freedom and safety that we've got your back.


 
 
 

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