This is the fifth in a series of posts, intended for a general audience, discussing the Constitution. Previous posts introduced the Constitution, rebutted some commonly held myths about the Constitution andaddressed the Equal Protection Clause.
Today’s post deals with hate speech and that part of the First Amendment that declares: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”.
I want to emphasize three important take-away points at the outset. One is that the First Amendment protects us from the government; it does not apply to relations between private persons. Second, the First Amendment, like all individual rights in the Constitution, is not absolute. And last, freedom of speech has costs.
What is freedom of speech anyway? There is the joke told years ago by the Russian comedian Yacov Smirnoff. He was confronted by an American bragging about freedom of speech. Smirnoff retorted: “Big deal! We also have freedom of speech in Russia. What we don’t have is freedom after speech.”
One of the most controversial free speech issues involves hate speech, including but not limited to the anti-Semitic kind. Hate speech and anti-Semitism are major concerns in Europe and the Middle East and remain a nagging concern in the US as well. Hate speech can be defined as speech directed at a historically oppressed religious or racial minority with the intent to insult and demean. Hate speech undermines social attitudes and beliefs, it isolates its targets and it tends to silence them because they are often stunned and unable to respond. Hate speech also traumatizes (think of the effect it had on survivors and other Jews when the Nazis threatened to march in Skokie). We all know some of the hateful slurs that are too often directed against Jews, blacks, Latinos and Italians in this country.
What does the First Amendment, through interpretations by the Supreme Court, have to say about hate speech? The short answer is that the First Amendment prohibits government from regulating such speech altogether. This is a very different approach from that of countries in Western Europe that often prohibit such speech, including denials of the Holocaust.
But why should that be? After all, despite the children’s saying about sticks and stones, we know that words can in fact hurt and lead to terrible acts. Words have power. Words have costs.
One answer is that the First Amendment creates a marketplace of ideas in which everyone can participate. Everyone can try to sell his or her ideas to the marketplace and the buyers in the marketplace eventually decide which ideas have value and which do not, which ideas are truthful and which are not. We are all sellers and buyers in this marketplace.
What is the government’s role in this marketplace of ideas? Basically, the government must stay neutral; it must keep its hands off of the marketplace. The Enlightenment assumption—the assumption of the Framers of the Constitution—that underlies the marketplace of ideas is that people are ultimately rational, they may be persuaded by reason, even though emotions and passions play a major rule in political decision-making.
What kinds of ideas are out there in the marketplace of ideas? Political ideas, artistic ideas, scientific ideas, social ideas of all kinds, whether smart, crazy, far-out, brilliant, dangerous.
However, despite what I’ve just said, there are some communications that are not allowed in the marketplace of ideas. Obscene speech, for one, carefully defined by the Supreme Court, is excluded from the marketplace of ideas. Another kind of communication, child pornography, is also not allowed because its production involves child abuse. The reasons for these exceptions include history and the belief that these kinds of communications have little or no redeeming social value.
So now you’re thinking the following: if there are some exceptions under the First Amendment and its marketplace of ideas, why not also include hate speech as an exception? After all, hate speech surely has little or no redeeming social value. It insults, it demeans, it traumatizes, it silences and there is a consensus in American society that it is valueless at best and dangerous at worst. Why should government not be allowed to prohibit it?
The Supreme Court’s answer to this particular question is that even hate speech contains political ideas, however horrible these ideas may be. When you regulate such speech, you are also regulating ideas. Think of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and forbidden words. The Supreme Court has also made clear that just because speech offends people, this is never a justification under the First Amendment for punishing it. Furthermore, we are justifiably suspicious of government when it attempts to regulate speech and ideas. After all, government may have its own political agenda in regulating hate speech—which groups would be protected against hate speech and which not?
Finally, and perhaps most important, think about how the marketplace of ideas functions: even if hateful ideas are communicated, the theory (hope?) is that counter-speech will emerge to rebut it and to fight it. In other words, more speech rather than less is the remedy.