My father once told me that the great thing about America is that I have the right to go to any street corner and shout anything I want, and you in turn have the right to hate me for it. In many ways, this makes America unique.
Much of the western world has anti–hate speech laws. In Germany, for instance, an 87– year–old woman was sentenced to ten months in prison for denying the Holocaust (The Telegraph, “German ‘Nazi grandma’ sentenced to 10 months in prison for holocaust denial,” 11.13.15).
While it may seem odd, the lack of anti–hate speech legislation is one of the things I love most about this country.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe we should be celebratory of hatred. I have just as much of a right to despise the Westboro Baptist Church as they have a right to exist in America. But democracies work when its citizens are exposed to all ideologies and have a choice of rejecting some and accepting others.
The maintenance of a democratic state requires the free and uninhibited exchange of ideas. Aside from threats of violence and harassment, it’s not the place of the government to determine what kind of speech is acceptable in the public square.
That’s why I was especially concerned when, a few weeks ago, the Pew Research Center published a poll in which 40 percent of millennials stated that they think the government should be able to prevent people from saying things that are offensive to minorities (Pew Research Center, “40% of Millennials OK with limiting speech offensive to minorities,” 11.20.15). Not hate speech, but offensive statements.
To be completely fair, 58 percent of millennials said that they don’t believe that the government should be censoring offensive language.
But that’s 42 percent too low, especially since the freedom of speech and expression are so crucial to the maintenance of a democratic state.
My first concern is that this shows a complete misunderstanding of the First Amendment. Former Congressman Ron Paul has often said that we don’t have freedom of speech so that we can talk about the weather, we have it so that we can talk about controversial things.
Freedom is about tolerating speech we disagree with, even speech we find morally abhorrent, in order to form a constructive dialogue.
There are also concerns regarding the implementation of such a policy. Would ‘offensiveness’ be based on what people think is offensive, or would the government determine an objective measure of offensiveness?
Would this be based off the rhetoric employed, or could the government decide that certain positions are inherently offensive? Which groups can people legally offend?
Would only historically marginalized groups be protected from offensive content? How would the government determine this? Would the government be censoring newspapers?
Would that mean that all newspapers would have to be approved by the government or would it be treated like any other crime and handled after the fact by a prosecutor? Would the government be regulating social media to suppress “hurtful” language?
Government censorship of offensive speech would require the creation of a bureaucracy that could easily expand to silence dissent.
It’s especially concerning that merely seven years after President Bush my generation is so trusting of the government.
When granting the government any power, you have to take as a given that the people you support aren’t going to be in office forever. Eventually someone will take office who is corrupt or incompetent.
Now imagine that power is to censor speech. If we give President Obama this authority, we’ll have to also give his successor that power. That successor could be Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton. That successor could also be Ted Cruz.
If you replaced the “government” with “Ted Cruz,” what percentage of millennials do you think would come out in favor of censorship?
I’m sure that by this point there are some readers that are extremely upset at me because I’m a white, cisgender, heterosexual male who just doesn’t get it. What am I, a [insert word ending with -ist or -phobe here]?
How dare I criticize reactions to offensive speech when I have never been in a situation where I’ve had to confront hateful rhetoric that targeted a group that I belong to?
Except that’s not true.
I am autistic. I was diagnosed when I was about two years old. This is not something I hide from people because I feel like it’s a part of who I am. It’s something I strongly identify with and, while it doesn’t dominate my life, it’s an important part my existence.
Up until about a year ago if you typed “people with autism should” into Google, you’d find that the top three searches were “be killed,” “die” and “be exterminated.”
If you research autism now you’ll find eugenics organizations masquerading as charities that call us “burdens,” stories about children who are murdered by their parents and I’m sure a slew of microaggressions.
I don’t think that it should be illegal to say hateful things about autistic people. I think doing so makes you an asshole. You have a right to be an asshole. You don’t have the right to be an asshole and then get upset when everyone starts calling you an asshole.
That’s an important distinction. The First Amendment isn’t about blindly accepting that every opinion that anyone has ever held has to be treated as morally equal to yours.
I don’t think that my belief that marriage should be between any two individuals is equal to the belief that marriage is between a man and woman of the same race, except legally.
They have the right to have their opinions. I have the right to hate them for it.
—Jesse Horowitz ’19 is a student at Vassar College.