Free Speech in Trump's America

As much as we would like the white supremacists and the misnamed alt-right to just shut the hell up, it is un-American to demand their silence by shutting down their speech through the law, even if they spout un-American values.

It is un-American because we have a First Amendment which is all but absolute when it comes to free speech- spoken and symbolic.  There are certainly some restrictions- libel and slander laws, copyright/trademark laws, and the so called “fighting words” exception.  Even with respect to the latter, it is even more qualified because a spoken threat must be imminent.  A perfect example would be calling for violence against a black person knowing a black person is standing in your midst.  But a speech or a magazine article full of racial or ethnic bigotry- no matter how repugnant- does not have that temporal element to it and is thus protected.

We are perhaps the only Western country that treats unfettered free speech with such reverence and with good reason.  Free speech which insults the prophet Mohammed is legal (as are depictions of Christ in a jar of human urine) and certainly inflammatory, but they are not incitements to violence.  Likewise, equally repugnant actions and words that deny the Holocaust or that celebrate the Confederacy are not incitements to violence.  If a morally repugnant act like flag burning is protected, so are equally repugnant words.

The problem started years ago.  There is a striking lack of understanding of the basic premises that underpin free speech.  When the core curricula at universities rid themselves of the philosophy of John Stuart Mill (to name one), colleges did a serious disservice to their students and America.  Coupled with the retreat from basic civics education in earlier schooling, we are left with a cadre of graduates who are accepting of restrictions on speech because someone’s feelings may be hurt.

A scary survey revealed that 69% of college students believe that the government or universities should be allowed to restrict speech that they define as “hate speech.”  They also believe at the same numbers that constitutional rights do not extend to religions considered non-mainstream, or fringe.  It is exactly these forms of speech and these religions that the First Amendment aims to protect the most.

While modern American society has largely disbanded many of the legal manifestations of racism and sexism and perhaps there is still some work to be done, it seems logical that language would be the next phase in this transformation of society.  And here is where we get into the tricky part because removing the legal manifestations of racism or sexism involves actions (mainly discrimination) and not thoughts, words, or language.  To many, this simply represents political correctness run amok.

Another consideration is the general degeneration of political discourse.  It may come as a surprise to many that this has been occurring well before Donald Trump came on the scene.  Racial slurs and abhorrent views are nothing new in American politics and a case can be made that a lot of today’s rhetoric is tame by historical standards.  Perhaps that is why we find the views and language of people on the alt-right, white supremacists and black nationalists so shocking; we falsely believed we have move beyond these ideas.

We have the most protective standards in the world for what other countries would classify as “hate speech.”  But unwritten rules of civility and pluralism have kept the incendiary rhetoric in check for some time.  Maybe Trump’s campaign rhetoric and his dangerous dance with these types emboldened them.  Or maybe, in their demented minds, things had reached a breaking point regardless of who occupied the White House.

It should also be remembered that not all speakers come bearing words of tolerance or peace.  Some are rhetorical bomb-throwers because it sells books, gets their articles published and their faces on television.  Milo Yiannopolous is an intelligent speaker with some decent points to make, but he is boring when he cites facts and statistics.  Hence, the off-color joke about Muslims or nasty comments about feminists and gays is what the crowds come to hear, not facts.  I invite the reader to listen to any of his many YouTube presentations, strip away the incendiary language, and much of what he says is parroted by some writers here.

And no discussion of restrictions on free speech would be complete without mentioning the slippery slope argument.  We have real world examples in this area that prove it.  In Canada, which has a guarantee of free speech, there are so many exceptions that true free speech is a sham.  Said their Supreme Court in a twisted version of circular logic:  “The benefits of the suppression of hate speech and its harmful effects outweigh the detrimental effect of restricting expression which, by its nature, does little to promote the values underlying freedom of expression.”  Huh?

In Europe, the situation is even worse:

  • four Swedes were convicted for distributing leaflets describing homosexuality as “deviant;”
  • a British man was convicted of hate speech after 9/11 for hanging a sign in his window that said “Islam Out of Britain;”
  • two Turks convicted of hate speech for questioning the government’s treatment of Kurds;
  • a Frenchman convicted of hate speech for writing an article questioning the effectiveness of poison gas in Nazi death camps (it was a technical article);
  • a Danish filmmaker convicted of hate speech for making a documentary where three of many people interviewed made “desultory remarks about Muslims.”

All “hate speech” laws do is further a totalitarian strategy where reasoned debate and facts are replaced by the punitive actions of the government.  What is often hate speech should be fought with speech which defends that which is under attack with the only exception being an incitement to imminent violence.

The true hate-mongers tend to be those who most vocally advocate for hate speech laws.  A society is no longer free when speech- no matter how ignorant, repugnant, or untoward- is legally restricted.  The hate speech advocates are the true and worst haters because they hate a free and open society.

No amount of legal pressure is going to change the beliefs of the fringes on either side of the political spectrum.  They were here long before Donald Trump and they will be here long after he is gone.

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