The left has adopted an absurdly expansive definition of “hate speech”, and they’d like you to believe that “hate speech” is unconstitutional. Their objective is to establish a platform from which they can ostracize and ultimately censor political opponents on a variety of policy issues, mixed with the pretense of a moral high ground. The constitutional claim is legal nonsense, of course. To be fair, the moral claim may depend on the issue.
John Daniel Davidson writes in The Federalist of the distinction between protected and unprotected speech in constitutional law. The primary exception to protected speech has to do with the use of “fighting words”. Davidson describes one Supreme Court interpretation of fighting words as “a face-to-face insult directed at a specific person for the purpose of provoking a fight.” Obviously threats would fall into the same category, but only to the extent that they imply “imminent lawless action”, according to a major precedent. As such, there is a distinction between fighting words versus speech that is critical, discriminatory, or even hateful, all of which are protected.
Hate speech, on the other hand, has no accepted legal definition. In law, it has not been specifically linked to speech offensive to protected groups under employment, fair housing, hate crime or any other legislation. If we are to accept the parlance of the left, it seems to cover almost anything over which one might take offense. However, unless it qualifies as fighting words, it is protected speech.
The amorphous character of hate speech, as a concept, makes it an ideal vehicle for censoring political opponents, and that makes it extremely dangerous to the workings of a free society. Any issue of public concern has more than one side, and any policy solution will usually create winners and losers. Sometimes the alleged winners and losers are merely ostensible winners and losers, as dynamic policy effects or “unexpected consequences” often change the outcomes. Advocacy for one solution or another seldom qualifies as hate toward those presumed to be losers by one side in a debate, let alone a threat of violence. Yet we often hear that harm is done by the mere expression of opinion. Here is Davidson:
“By hate speech, they mean ideas and opinions that run afoul of progressive pieties. Do you believe abortion is the taking of human life? That’s hate speech. Think transgenderism is a form of mental illness? Hate speech. Concerned about illegal immigration? Believe in the right to bear arms? Support President Donald Trump? All hate speech.“
Do you support the minimum wage? Do you oppose national reparation payments to African Americans? Do you support health care reform? Welfare reform? Rollbacks in certain environmental regulations? Smaller government? You just might be a hater, according to this way of thinking!
The following statement appears in a recent proposal on free speech. The proposal was recommended as policy by an ad hoc committee created by the administration of a state university:
“… Nor does freedom of expression create a privilege to engage in discrimination involving unwelcome verbal, written, or physical conduct directed at a particular individual or group of individuals on the basis of actual or perceived status, or affiliation within a protected status, and so severe or pervasive that it creates an intimidating or hostile environment that interferes with an individual’s employment, education, academic environment, or participation in the University’s programs or activities.“
This is an obvious departure from the constitutional meaning of free expression or any legal precedent.
And here is Ulrich Baer, who is New York University‘s vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity (and professor of comparative literature), in an opinion piece this week in the New York Times:
“The recent student demonstrations [against certain visiting speakers] should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people, rather than censorship. … Universities invite speakers not chiefly to present otherwise unavailable discoveries, but to present to the public views they have presented elsewhere. When those views invalidate the humanity of some people, they restrict speech as a public good. …
The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks. It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community.“
How’s that for logical contortion? Silencing speakers is an effort to protect free speech! As noted by Robby Soave in on Reason.com, “... free speech is not a public good. It is an individual right.” This cannot be compromised by the left’s endlessly flexible conceptualization of “hate speech”, which can mean almost any opinion with which they disagree. Likewise, to “invalidate the humanity of some people” is a dangerously subjective standard. Mr. Baer is incorrect in his assertion that speakers must balance the “inherent” value of their views with an obligation to be “inclusive”. The only obligation is not to threaten or incite “imminent lawless action”. Otherwise, freedom of speech is a natural and constitutionally unfettered right to express oneself. Nothing could be more empowering!
Note that the constitution specifically prohibits the government from interfering with free speech. That includes any public institution such as state universities. Private parties, however, are free to restrict speech on their own property or platform. For example, a private college can legally restrict speech on its property and within its facilities. The owner of a social media platform can legally restrict the speech used there as well.
Howard Dean, a prominent if somewhat hapless member of the democrat establishment, recently tweeted this bit of misinformation: “Hate speech is not protected by the first amendment.” To this, Dean later added some mischaracterizations of Supreme Court decisions, prompting legal scholar Eugene Volokh to explain the facts. Volokh cites a number of decisions upholding a liberal view of free speech rights (and I do not use the word liberal lightly). Volokh also cites the “prior restraint doctrine”:
“The government generally may not exclude speakers — even in government-owned ‘limited public forums’ — because of a concern that the speakers might violate the rules if they spoke.“
If a speaker violates the law by engaging in threats or inciting violence, it is up to law enforcement to step in, ex post, just as they should when antifa protestors show their fascist colors through violent efforts to silence speakers. Volokh quotes from an opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Backmun:
“… a free society prefers to punish the few who abuse rights of speech after they break the law than to throttle them and all others beforehand. It is always difficult to know in advance what an individual will say, and the line between legitimate and illegitimate speech is often so finely drawn that the risks of freewheeling censorship are formidable.”