On free speech and hate

Before anybody rushes to remind me that there’s already scholarship, legal theory, and jurisprudence on these issues–I know. I’m not making a legal argument.

Two precipitating events have me thinking about this topic.

The other day, our colleague and friend Sid Dobrin posted a photo on Facebook of somebody with a swastika armband bicycling around the University of Florida campus. He came back yesterday and drew a crowd. The swastika-wearing cyclist swears (O! Dear me! How could anyone think I have bad intentions?!?) the “protestors don’t understand my intentions” and that he doesn’t “mean to hurt anyone.”

Yesterday, at West Chester University where I teach, two “preachers” showed up on campus (this happens periodically) spewing incendiary bigotry at anyone and everyone within shouting distance. Unfortunately, a couple of students reacted strongly enough that they were arrested and are likely to be charged with assault.

So here’s the thing.

I understand what the First Amendment says, and that the jurisprudence around free speech has historically protected groups like the KKK and their right to speak. I understand as somebody who studies rhetoric and activism that sometimes groups need to create very uncomfortable spectacles and situations in order to mobilize people on behalf of issues. As somebody who was deeply involved in organizing our faculty strike last fall and has been doing activism of various kinds for 30+ years, I get it.

But I want to challenge people who defend the Nazi-bicycle-guy and the two “preachers” (who I refuse to acknowledge as Christian based on how explicitly hateful they are) to explain something to me.

The presumption free-speech laws and jurisprudence make is that such speech is necessary to the healthy functioning of democracy. Explain to me how riding a bicycle around a campus with one of the largest Jewish populations in the country, waving a swastika around at people, is positively contributing to democracy. Explain how we’re advancing public deliberation about, um, anything at all by standing in the middle of WCU campus telling women that they’re sinning just by being at college, or that calling people “faggots and whores” accomplishes anything useful at all. And “because if we don’t use our free speech rights, we lose them” isn’t an answer. And “because they can” isn’t an answer either. The question is: what do those hateful incendiary utterances do to advance public discourse about anything at all?

I’m listening.

4 Responses to On free speech and hate

  1. I wouldn’t defend them, but ask this about your premise: Must my speech be about advancing discourse, or accomplishing anything? Many constitutional rights do neither. Second and third amendments, for example. (Fairly muddled brain today, so I can’t think of better examples.) Artist test limits. Political artists do also. Asshats do as well. If we become speech police, in order to save democracy, society and prevent others from being offended…we fail to support free speech.
    Shia Leboef might inspire violence from some, but it appears he has actually taken swings at others who disagree with him. He’s the problem, not the solution. Sorry that two students are learning a hard lesson, but fists are not the answer to hate.

    • sethkahn says:

      I’m not actually arguing any of those things. I’m asking a simple question–what positive contribution does such vile speech make to anything or anyone? Sure, one implication of that question could be arguing for limits, but I’m not committed to going there. I really just want to know. How does any of that kind of speech help anyone except the people who speak it?

  2. Dayna Goldstein says:

    I am all sorts of conflicted in this one.

    You asked, “what do those hateful incendiary utterances do to advance public discourse about anything at all?”

    These answers may or may not represent me. I am just answering.

    1. Public spectacle begets public conversation
    2. Things that happen in Academia receive heightened scrutiny in public discourse.
    3. Finer distinctions in complex ideas such as freedom of speech are revealed in the publics stance by case exemplars
    4. Measureable and informative praise and shame are generated.
    5. History is recapitulated for a new generation

    • sethkahn says:

      I’m somewhat conflicted too, which is why I’m not advancing, or even positing, a policy stance here. As of now, at least, in the US, the law doesn’t require a positive justification for protecting free speech. And even the most vile bigotry is protected as long as it doesn’t violate the “fire in a crowded theater” standard.

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