The Freedom of Speech is as close to absolute as any freedom we possess.
In the United States, the First Amendment grants every American the freedom of speech. At the time the Bill of Rights was written, this was a revolutionary concept since within most nations the average citizen could not speak their mind freely without fear of consequence. As the times and technologies change, the way in which the average citizen can exercise their freedom speech has expanded beyond anything our Founding Fathers could have imagined. This expansion of channels for free speech has affected our society in many observable ways throughout the past few decades.
Questions regarding free speech have resurfaced in recent months with the rise of extremist groups such as Antifa and the “Alt-Right.” With the announcement that the University of Cincinnati would allow Richard Spencer to speak on campus, the debate surrounding the meaning of things such as free speech and hate speech have hit close to home. We all learned in grade school that the freedom of speech allows us to say what we please, especially when it comes to our government. But what exactly constitutes hate speech? Well the simple answer is that there is no such thing.
The Supreme Court has ruled on many cases in the past decades regarding “hate speech.” In the case Snyder v. Phelps (2011) the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church’s right to picket a fallen soldier’s funeral. Rulings in cases such as Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) allow the Klu Klux Klan to continue operating in the United States as their speech is protected under the First Amendment. The rationale for these rulings are all very similar in that the Supreme Court feels that they can only rule against actions, not speech. In summary, according to the United States Supreme Court there is no legal definition of hate speech, and therefore anything considered by some to be hate speech is actually speech protected under the First Amendment.
“The idea is that a big government seems great until you have to fathom the thought of somebody you disagree with gaining control of the government.”
To start I will say that the messages of groups such as the Klu Klux Klan and the Westboro Baptist Church are reprehensible and any reasonable person would agree. With that in mind, the federal government should not and cannot get into the business of restricting any group’s freedom of speech. Once the federal government can deem what speech is acceptable and what is not, there is no end to what restrictions the government can impose on speech. The same line of logic is at work for conservatives and libertarians who preach the need for a smaller, limited federal government. The idea is that a big government seems great until you have to fathom the thought of somebody you disagree with gaining control of the government.
But if there is speech that a large majority of people would conclude to be hateful it is okay to silence it right? Well, no. No person or group, no matter how legitimate or popular, should be able to silence speech just because they view it as hateful or unwelcome. Now of course this opens up a vacuum in which any kind of horrid and hateful idea can be introduced to see if it will gain traction, and unfortunately with groups such as Antifa and the “Alt-Right” we have seen this. However, a big part of being a Republic is having faith in your fellow man and relying on the battlefield of ideas to castigate the bad ones and promote the good. It is sometimes said that “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” meaning that if someone’s ideas are truly hateful and ill-informed, then let them speak and allow the public to see their ideas for what they truly are.
It is an unfortunate byproduct of the First Amendment that some ideas which are widely accepted as abhorrent, are protected by our God-given right to freedom of speech. However, every freedom has it’s cost and it is vitally important that all speech remain protected by the First Amendment to guard against possible limitations of speech in the future. One of the major misconceptions amongst the younger generation is the idea of hate speech as a legally defined term that is somehow separate from speech that is protected under the First Amendment. We must do a better job in educating the youth of this country to debate ideas they see as hateful and wrong, instead of simply trying to silence opponents by yelling “hate speech.”
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