A recently released book, The Harm in Hate Speech by Jeremy Waldron, argues that our current laws which permit hate speech focus on legal principles rather than the effect of such speech on people who find their dignity under assault. Waldron points to European countries where hate speech is prosecuted as a criminal act, Germany, England and France among them. The author realizes that suppressing vitriolic speech does little to suppress hate but argues laws against such language set community standards.
I understand this impulse to set limits on speech. Rappers who incite violence against women in their songs make me want to tear my hair out, or better yet, to pass laws to limit these excesses. But as one constitutional lawyer observed, “You don’t have the right to have your dignity upheld by society. Hurt feelings go with the territory.” (“Fighting words or free speech?” by Peter Korn, The Tribune, Thursday November 8, 2012, pg. A2.) Going a step further Steven Kanter, a Jew who has been a victim of hate speech and who is a law professor, defends it arguing free speech is a pressure valve that prevents hate actions. (Ibid pg. A2)
Of course, not everyone agrees with Korn or Kanter. Some argue that one cannot yell “Fire” in a public place because it endangers lives. Similarly, allowing a person to yell obscenities against an individual or group because of race, creed or color puts those targeted at risk, an argument that has prevailed in the courts in a few cases.
The issues on both sides seem evenly matched and the country may be due for a public debate. But in a nation as diverse as ours, who should be empowered to set community standards? Should the majority rule? Or are there minority views to be protected? Additionally, do we really want government to regulate speech?
I still rage against insensitive rappers, but in the end, I’d rather attack the ignorance than its expression.
(Courtesy of bradzimmerman.co.nz)