What follows is my editor’s letter from the January Arizona Attorney Magazine. It’s titled “Speech Disorder,” and I’d welcome any thought on how we address hate speech in this country—and whether a change is in order.
That was the basis of a fascinating debate this past fall, held at the ASU Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. In October, ASU Professor James Weinstein defended the U.S. position against a view espoused by NYU Law Professor Jeremy Waldron.
Generally stated, the American antidote to hate speech is simply … more speech. Our rightful affinity for the First Amendment means that even the most vile words are often met by the phrase (and sentiment), “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” So integral to our psyche is that belief that most of us bristle at the suggestion of a “speech code.”
And yet, Waldron made a compelling argument that the harm from speech can be so poisonous that there are times when it should be stymied. Laws—accepted in many countries—may be drafted to convey an “implicit diffuse assurance” that social peace is a public good.
At ASU and in his book The Harm in Hate Speech, Waldron dissected the hate-group argument that what they are doing is merely advocating a position. No, he insists; the groups really are conveying an action-packed message: “You are not wanted.” And that message is often backed up by the threat of violence.
Those concepts were on my mind in November, at the University of Arizona College of Law annual McCormick lecture, delivered by Morris Dees. The co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Dees gave a rollicking speech that of necessity touched on his significant courtroom work on behalf of victims of discrimination. That trial lawyer’s career has been framed in many ways by efforts to end hatred and to alleviate its effects.
But how would his decades of work have differed if our approach to hate speech (which often precedes hate crimes) had taken a path accepted in many other countries? It may be worth considering.
I’m reading Waldron’s book and considering his position. But I take seriously his warning that viewing this as an academic debate may prove deadly. As he glanced around a packed law school hall at a relatively privileged audience, he reminded us that hate speech has real-world impacts.
“We can pretend to be unaffected,” he said. “But we should try to envision ourselves as somebody who has to live his life under this besmirchment, who has to live one’s life in the shadow of these insults.”
What do you think? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.Follow @azatty