Free Speech vs Hate Speech

Is it ever justified to abrogate the First Amendment right of free speech because of its content? As a dedicated ACLU member that's a difficult question I've wrestled with all my life. Most of the time I come down on the side of, "I hate what you say but I'll defend your right to say it" -- but not always.

The one exception I'll make is that I won't defend hate speech that is clearly intended to intimidate and terrorize as a tool of oppression and discrimination -- or to incite violence. (Note though, that words and ideas which just make someone uncomfortable, uneasy, or that they feel belittles them does not, in my opinion, rise to that bar.)

But advocating an exception to the First Amendment is not something I do lightly. It is we who stand for justice and equality who most often have our free speech squashed by wealth and power because they want to suppress our ideas. And precedents that we set in combating hate speech can -- and will -- be used to squelch us.

Images of torch-carrying white-supremacists marching through the UVA campus chanting racism, anti-Semitism, and the Nazi slogan "Blood and Soil" reminded me of similar parades by German and Italian fascists which were used to intimidate and terrorize Jews, gypsies, gays, trade unionists, and political opponents. And perhaps even more so to intimidate all the good people who needed to be cowed into silence so that evil might triumph.

So too the purpose of KKK rallies & speeches, cross burnings, torch-bearing parades, and horn-honking car caravans of heavily-armed, white-robed Klansmen through Afro-American neighborhoods was to enforce segregation through terror and to deter Black men and women from challenging white-supremacy by daring to vote.

So yes, though I cherish the First Amendment, that kind of hate "speech" has to be fought and suppressed because it's not just a form of speech it's also a form of action clearly designed to intimidate and terrorize for the purpose of imposing by force a regime of oppression and injustice. Which is why we need to demand that the National Park Service refuse to issue a permit for an alt-right rally.

Bruce Hartford

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