Free Speech vs. Hate Speech

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of free speech to all Americans. But is hate speech protected? Should it be? And what constitutes hate speech – different groups seem to have very different definitions. These questions and more were examined Dec. 5 at “Free Speech vs. Hate Speech: An Ithaca Conversation,” part of the Dinner Conversation Series hosted by the Ithaca Coalition for Unity and Cooperation in the Middle East (ICUCME).

The evening began with reading the text of the First Amendment. Facilitator Linda Glaser, chair of ICUCME, introduced the discussion by pointing out that there is no definition of “hate speech” in the Constitution.

Breaking into small groups, participants discussed three scenarios; the first, about the boundaries of political speech. “There is a difference between hateful speech and hate speech,” said one participant, advocating for the protection of “hateful” speech but not for hate speech. “Hateful” speech should be seen as an opportunity for education, she said.

Participants for the most part came down strongly on the side of free speech, regardless of content. “As one commentator recently noted, ‘free speech is not something we do because we agree with all of the speech that gets protected. We do it because we believe that no one—not the government and not private commercial enterprises—should decide who gets to speak and who doesn’t,’” said Glaser.

The second scenario focused on whether speech in and of itself can be violent, as a statement by a group of Vassar students contends: “speech, whether it is legal or not, can be and is violent,” they wrote. “We have a collective responsibility to stand up for those in our communities who are harmed or disenfranchised by speech, whether it is legally permissible or not.”

One person commented that this type of outcry on campuses against hate speech is the logical extension of the anti-bulllying training children now receive in elementary school. They are taught not to stand by while a bully says or does something hurtful to someone else – hence the sentiment on campuses that hate speech should not be protected.

The line blurred a bit when talking about speakers who use their platform to recruit others to condemn or brutalize those who are different from them. One participant said it’s easier to condemn those speaking out against marginalized groups; the same speech against powerful groups, like the rich, doesn’t feel hateful in the same way.

The definition of hate speech that drew universal condemnation from participants was speech that incites immediate violence – though even there, some participants said that those committing the violence, not the speaker, should be punished.

The third scenario raised the question of whether deliberately presenting falsehoods to gain sympathy for a political viewpoint is protected speech. The example offered was that of Rutgers University professor Jasbir Puar, who asserted falsely in a talk at Vassar College that Israel kills Palestinians for the purpose of harvesting their organs.

This was a difficult question, said discussants. “Certainly such lies should not be let to stand,” said one person.

But at a time when “truthiness” has replaced truth in the popular imagination and politicians feel no compulsion about uttering complete falsehoods, said another participant, how do you get academics to see beyond their own political viewpoints and adhere to standards of critical thinking and verifiable facts?