The Blurred Line between free and hate speech

The First Amendment plays a large role in what makes this country so great. The freedom of religion, speech and press is what prompted many to come to this land in the beginning, and it still serves as one of the main reasons immigrants come today. But what all does the First Amendment entail? Everyday, one hears more and more about the growing dilemma of  “hate speech” and the argument that such a thing should not be protected under the First Amendment.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

This is the First Amendment of the constitution. While everyone agrees that this protects the people’s basic liberties of petition, assembly, speech, religion and press, some people differ in their views on how to interpret the amendment. What should be protected? How much should be censored and how much is protected under the amendment?

When thinking about the First Amendment and what it stands for, one should also consider when it was written. This law was written when people owned slaves and saw nothing wrong with it. People had no idea what a computer or a car was. People were less diverse. When thinking in this light, it is very reasonable to suggest that  we not only look at what the First Amendment says, but also take into context when it was written.

According to Justice Samuel Alito in Matal v. Tam, hate speech is “speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground.”

Due to the  issue of hate speech becoming more prominent, many believe that hate speech should be considered unconstitutional. Proponents of this idea believe that hate speech causes defamation to an individual or group and can cause the affected to have psychological trauma.

“You can feel psychic trauma, which can have physiological manifestations. You can feel silenced. These are all real harms that may be suffered by people who are subject to hate speech that is not punishable,”former ACLU President Nadine Strossen said.

Those who oppose declaring hate speech unconstitutional worry about the country creating too much censorship. They believe that this would give the government too much power.

“Debate on these perspectives can yield important insights about how words heard as innocent by some can sound profoundly menacing to others. But if hate speech became the basis of convictions and jail sentences, such ambiguities and subjectivities would be untenable,” former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations at the U.S. State Department Suzanne Nossel said.

These strong views have come after many recent incidents involving hate speech. One of these debacles involved the Confederate flag, which hits close to home as it is most commonly seen in the south. The flag that has caused so much discussion is actually not the original Confederate flag, but the battle flag of General Robert E. Lee. It has grown to be seen as a hate symbol, since it was used by the Ku Klux Klan. According to 2011 Pew Research Center, only 30 percent of Americans reported feeling negative when seeing the flag and 58 percent of Americans reported feeling neutral. Many think that that this flag is not a huge deal, which causes controversy. While there are many who staunchly defend the use of the flag, there are many more who find it offensive. This would not have been such a debacle if the Ku Klux Klan had not used it as a hate symbol, but since they are such a hate group, the flag is no longer just a symbol of heritage. This causes many to believe it should not be allowed.

Another inciting incident to the hate speech argument is the controversy at Yale in 2015. When Yale officials attempted to heavily suggest what Halloween costumes should and should not be worn, Erika Christakis, an early childhood education lecturer, expressed her thoughts in an email on how it is not the administrator’s place to tell young adults how to dress. This seemingly unbiased email also included sentiments such as “is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” which caused many students to respond quite negatively.

“You fail to distinguish the difference between cosplaying fictional characters and misrepresenting actual groups of people,” one student said.

This brings the argument of hate speech into light in a different angle: does hate speech encompass those who wear offensive costumes as well? These costumes do demean an ethnic or religious group, so it seems plausible.

There are many more instances where controversial things happen, but the central argument remains: where is the line between free speech and hate speech and should the government be given the power to determine the line. These incidents are becoming more prevalent, which leads one to think that some type of action will be taken soon.