Hate speech. Angry rhetoric. Insensitive language. All of it can be categorized under one umbrella: free speech. Now, I think any lousy bastard that throws around racial slurs, or uses emotional language to whip his/her audience into a frenzy needs to be shouted down, or ignored like a child throwing a tantrum. In the wake of a tragedy like Orlando, San Bernardino, Charleston or Colorado Springs, or any other senseless shedding of innocent blood we want to point fingers and say, “You! You are responsible for making this happen!” After these incidents we bury the killers, or throw them into some deep, dark pit where they can wallow for a bit, but the hind part of our brain is thirsty for more. We might seek out impotent politicians who quarrel while our friends and family members and lovers are slain in bars, schools, or houses of worship. We might seek out religious, or political leaders, who helped push a fanatic over the edge. Even now, in England, British lawmaker Jo Cox is dead because of a far-right nationalist terrorist. I doubt the man came to these opinions completely on his own, which means someone, somewhere, got his head in the right kind of space to carry out such an atrocity.
Some think that it’s high time we had a long, hard conversation about certain inalienable rights. Freedom of speech, being one of them. This is an ongoing discussion, though, and I fear that I may not be well equipped enough to discuss the finer points of Constitutional law. Ah, hell, it’s worth a shot.
For any of my international readers out there (here’s looking at you, Mexico!) what I’m about to discuss deals with American law, and your mileage may vary.
So, Orlando. The details are still coming in, and it may be weeks, if not months, before we have the full picture of everything that led up to this attack including any information about Omar Mateen’s religious beliefs. It is now known that Mateen had sworn his alliance to the Islamic State, a “country” (if you can even call it that) that has a dismal track record when it comes to human rights, especially the rights of gay persons. The rhetoric he may have been exposed to prior to the attack cannot be discounted in discerning who, or what, influenced him to walk into a club in Orlando and start shooting innocent people. Does this mean homophobic, or otherwise hateful speech, should be restrained? In a cultural context or a social context many of us would agree, hell, I’d agree. Legally speaking, that kind of speech is perfectly legal under the auspices of the First Amendment. You can say the most vile, awful, degrading bullshit and be protected by the law. However, there are exceptions, but we’ll get to those later. I want to repeat myself right now. I think it’s inappropriate and lazy arguing if you reduce a person, or a group of people, to a single word, but just because I dislike the language and disagree with the idea behind it doesn’t mean you should be formally punished if you think a certain way, or use certain words.
Perhaps a little closer to home, we have our own groups of resident assholes that spout their inane madness for all the world to hear, even if the majority of the world does not care what they have to say. I’m sure most of us are all too familiar with the Westboro Baptist Church, the KKK, and too many other groups to count. For your viewing pleasure, you can check out the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of groups, and even find one in your own neighborhood if you feel like getting a little depressed. The sad reality is these groups have as much right to speech, as you, or I, Dear Reader. Some might say, “But what about hate speech?” Hate speech is protected by the Constitution. This means that you, or I, or Westboro Baptist, or the KKK, or any other extremist group cannot be prosecuted for hate speech. The individual States and the other countries may have exceptions, but the general understanding in the United States is that you cannot be formally punished for saying mean things to, or about, people. For the most part, this extends to private organizations and even public ones like universities or public schools. Private organizations (like companies) can enforce their own rules though. For example, websites like Facebook or Reddit attempt to champion free speech, but they are not bound by any existing law to protect it. So, if you post something, and enough people report it, the company can decide to pull the post with little to no review process. Here’s the thought process: Facebook (for example) probably doesn’t care about what you’re saying. As long as you’re not a troublemaker then you can say just about anything. However, if enough users report the post and want it removed then Facebook will be inclined to remove it, because if they fail to take action then the users might be inclined to stop using the site. Facebook, and all other private organizations, have one goal in mind: getting customers and making money. If something threatens the cash-flow they will deal with that threat quickly and with extreme prejudice. Facebook also doesn’t want to be known as a website that promotes, or at least ignores, groups that espouse things like racism, sexism, etc. The same also applies to public organizations like universities or public schools. While public universities and public schools are supposed to be funded by taxes, that funding depends largely on how many students attend a school, and how well they perform. At public universities students still need to pay part of their way via tuition (as I’m sure many of you are painfully aware) and if students, or parents, don’t like the information being disseminated at a school then those students probably won’t stick around for another semester. In short: if students leave, then the money leaves, or if students aren’t performing well then the money goes too. Basically, in both instances the organizations want to keep the peace as best as possible while remaining solvent. This means the fault isn’t with the organizations, it’s with us; the users, the students, the participants. We’ll get back to that in just a second.
I briefly mentioned earlier in this post that there are exceptions to free speech (in the United States). We tend to believe that free speech is a sacred right and cannot, nor should not, be limited, but there are reasonable exclusions. The most common example is that you can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater. The reason is obvious: you can’t create panic that may lead to people getting hurt if there is no threat. I won’t list every single exception, but there is a Wikipedia article that might help you make sense of it. Let’s circle back to hate speech, or in a broader sense, offensive speech. Are there limits on offensive speech? Not exactly. For example, if a political leader, or a religious leader, is screaming their head off about whatever person or group they have decided is a threat, they are within their legal right to do that. I don’t like Trump. I think he’s a cheap reincarnation of Mussolini that likes to stand behind a podium and make wild promises that will probably never happen, but so far he hasn’t said anything that is not protected by free speech.
The situation changes when that leader is encouraging his/her followers, in exact language, to go out and commit crimes against a person or a group of people. For example, a person can say, “We should do something about the gays.” It’s vague, it’s foreboding, and depending on that sentence’s context you can figure out what the implication is, but it is still legal and protected speech. If that same person said, “The gays will burn in hell!” it’s still legal. There is no imminent physical threat. However, if that same person said something like, “We’re going to kill the gays” (I know, blunt and unimaginative, but work with me) then it becomes a threat and is no longer protected speech. It’s the same as if you told a person, “You should die!” It’s mean and probably unwarranted, but it’s not the same as saying, “I’m going to kill you!” Even then, that would have to be said without hyperbole. Does this mean leaders or groups are exempt from responsibility? It depends. Unless a leader or group explicitly commands followers or members to commit a crime then there is no legal responsibility. Although, I would argue that there is a moral responsibility to try and prevent any crimes that might be committed by an adherent to an ideology. A priest, minister, rabbi, imam, or politician has the right to rant and rave about sinners, and immorality, and all of that, but they also have a responsibility to remind their followers that appropriate action is through nonviolent action like voting, protesting, or civil disobedience, not through murder or intimidation.
Image Source Cartoon by Ann Telnaes
Now that I’ve established what is/isn’t legal speech, let’s return to that bit about free speech restrictions on websites or on college campuses. If someone is making threats, or is insinuating that they are going to commit a crime then obviously you have a duty to report that person. Also, defamation and libel are very real things that can land you in a world of shit. It might seem cathartic and satisfying to post a rumor or even a truth about a person you don’t like, but that short term gratification can turn into a nasty legal battle. However, if a person simply disagrees with you, or holds an opinion that you find repulsive, or says something offensive to you or in your presence, doesn’t mean they deserve to be silenced, because doing that is only going to breed animosity and division where there could be discussion and education. If a person posts something that you don’t agree with then you can either a) ignore it or b) engage them in debate. Make yourself look like the more reasonable, approachable side. If you come out guns blazing, calling them names and belittling the other person then they are going to ignore your argument and you’ll probably wind up looking like an irrational jackass. Outside of the internet you ought to do the same. I’ll tell you a quick story. Every year a religious group shows up at my college. They have signs listing all the reasons why every student is going to go to hell and why we are all degenerates. They are disruptive, they are crass, and they are a general nuisance. Usually a group of students surrounds them and yells back at them, trying to figure out creative ways to insult them or just drown out the vitriol. I don’t like the protestors or the counter-protestors. I just want to get from point A to point B with as little insanity as possible. Just because I don’t like what the religious protestors say doesn’t mean they don’t have a right to be here. They can be told to stay out of the way, and they can be told to tone it down, but until they break a law they will continue to show up and yell at students. Screaming back at them isn’t going to solve anything either. The students that do that wind up looking immature, thin-skinned, and just as easily discomforted as the religious zealots.
We all need to recognize that free speech applies to everyone, and to just about everything, not just to people we like and opinions we want to hear. I know it’s easy to immerse ourselves in echo chambers where dissent does not exist, and it’s encouraging to know that when you say something or post something a small army of people will nod their heads and agree with you. It’s human nature to join groups that we agree with, and eventually those groups either seek out, or create, platforms and institutions where group members can share their ideas with as little conflict as possible. I understand why a college, or a public school, or a website like Facebook or Reddit would want to avoid conflict. At the same time we need neutral areas where everyone is allowed to speak and be heard. Just because a university or a website allows controversial opinions to be shared does not mean that that organization endorses those opinions. We also need to understand that muzzling a speaker, or burying our heads in the sand, will not make a problem go away, and it will not make people stop thinking about an idea. I would love to live in a society where racism, sexism, homophobia, and all other forms of hate and bigotry either cease to exist, or exist in limited capacities, but the way to deal with those issues is through patient education and ongoing discussion, not through censorship or arbitrary punishment. Establishing a precedent where unsavory speech is swiftly punished can backfire in a hurry. I don’t want to live in a country where the concept of thoughtcrime is a reality, and I’m willing to bet you don’t either.
Since this is a sister post to my previous blog post about the Orlando shooting I want to remind all my readers that the fundraisers I mentioned in that article are still going on. At the time of publishing this post, Equality Florida’s drive is at $5.9 million (with a goal of $7 million), The Center’s drive is at a little over $470,000 (with a goal of $500,000), and Planting Peace is at a little over $99,000 (with a goal of $100,000). If you aren’t in a position to donate money the Red Cross is always in need of blood donations. Even if it isn’t going to Orlando it’s still a good thing to do.
As always, thanks for reading. Feel free to leave a comment (even if you disagree), and you’re welcome to follow me on WordPress, Twitter, or on Facebook to stay updated with future blog posts.