The American response to hateful words is traditionally more words. Is there a better way?

The American response to hateful words is traditionally more words. Is there a better way?

This spring saw a sometimes-troubling dialogue about campus speech erupt. Some of that dialogue was spurred by videotape catching the racist chants of members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity at the University of Oklahoma.

Arizona Republic columnist E.J. Montini wrote about the incident, and some of the reactions he’s gotten.

In it, Montini says he supports the school’s expulsion of students who perform that way. But he got pushback from an ASU student who said all speech should be permitted—even the offensive speech.

First Amendment challenges have never been more challenging.

I’ve written before about the difficulties a free society faces where speech is concerned. And the newest skirmishes remind me of a book I’ve touted in the past: The Harm in Hate Speech, by Jeremy Waldron.

In these United States, we have been taught to believe that (pretty much) all speech should be unregulated. But Waldron points out that the American view is not the only possible course.

Maybe the American view is correct. Maybe the only antidote to horrific speech is simply more speech, as if the latter will shout out the former.

But other nations—even many who have a rule of law we respect—take a decidedly different tack. Their approaches are founded on a belief that the public utterance of hateful speech can cause harm, even if it is not paired with criminal behaviors.

Harm in Hate Speech book cover Jeremy WaldronThose nations could be wrong, and “speech codes” find little support in the United States. But I wonder what would happen if the next time an incident of hate speech makes the national headlines, those in the majority culture took a rhetorical pass and remained silent for a bit. It might be enlightening to hear only from people of color on the topic of how to address hate speech.

Who knows? Their response may be the same, as we are all steeped in an American culture that insists, “I condemn your speech, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

But maybe not. Maybe the response will be more nuanced than simply calling for tolerance and more speech.

It is far too easy for those who are never affected by hate speech (except to find it vaguely distasteful) to insist that such utterances are a sad but necessary part of our republic. As I’ve written before, it is offensive to maintain a position that requires people in minority communities to carry the burden of daily insults so that an American sense of fair play can by upheld.

Sure, everyone’s opinion on hate speech is welcome. But I’d prefer if we gave prime position to those opinions that arise from minority communities. Does hate speech simply “come with democracy”? Or can words alone be such a debilitating harm that they should be addressed and maybe curtailed in some way?

What do you think? Write to me at arizona.attorney@azbar.org.

the n word

It may be in the darkest corners of our history—and ourselves—that we locate the self-awareness to make positive change.

That thought occurred to me when yesterday I came across a lecture at noon today that takes on the uncomfortable but vital topic of one of the most vile insults that can be uttered. Kudos to the ASU Law School for inviting a speaker to address “The N Word.”

The speaker is Neal Lester, an ASU Foundation Professor of English and the Director of Project Humanities—a surprising choice for a law school speaker, but an inspired one. Lester’s research and his experience as a literary scholar combine to bring to today’s lecture what I’m sure will be a nuanced and incisive commentary.

Here’s how the Law School describes the event:

 “The N-word is unique in American English usage. No other word is so charged with negative meaning and racial insult that its very use is deemed a hostile act, and it is routinely referred to by a well-understood euphemism—’the N-word’—rather than spoken or written explicitly. … This program will be moderated by Professor Myles Lynk of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. College of Law Professor James Weinstein will offer comments after Dr. Lester’s presentation.”

Whether or not you can attend today, you may enjoy a Q&A with Lester on the site Teaching Tolerance, where the scholar is described:

“Neal A. Lester, dean of humanities and former chair of the English department at Arizona State University, recognized that the complexity of the n-word’s evolution demanded greater critical attention. In 2008, he taught the first ever college-level class designed to explore the word ‘nigger’ (which will be referred to as the n-word). Lester said the subject fascinated him precisely because he didn’t understand its layered complexities.”

ASU Foundation Professor Neal Lester

ASU Foundation Professor Neal Lester

Coincidentally, it was another ASU Law School event that suggested to me that hard issues may often be best met at an angle rather than head-on. (Not an original idea. In The Rings of Saturn, the great German author W. G. Sebald pondered how to present his resistant countrymen some hard messages about its 20th-century genocidal history. He opted for a compelling and subtle stroll—plus commentary—through English towns. Your careful read is rewarded.)

Last fall, I attended a striking ASU debate between scholars over the nature of hate speech (it also included Professor James Weinstein). They pondered a question we Americans tend to think is a settled issue: Is it best to meet hate speech with regulation, or simply with more speech?

I wrote about the event here, and I still wonder whether our “more speech” antidote is a cure or just a placebo.

Meantime, someone I respect greatly pointed me to an arresting quotation of the poet Maya Angelou, which I leave you with:

“The plague of racism is insidious, entering into our minds as smoothly and quietly and invisibly as floating airborne microbes enter into our bodies to find lifelong purchase in our bloodstreams.”

If anyone attends today’s lecture and wants to write a blog post (with a cellphone photo or two), contact me at arizona.attorney@azbar.org.

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.

Harm in Hate Speech book cover Jeremy WaldronMaybe we’ve got this “hate speech” thing all wrong.

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.

Morris Dees, Nov. 8, 2012

Morris Dees, Nov. 8, 2012

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 arizona.attorney@azbar.org.