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Issue of Free Speech and Hate Speech

Updated November 11, 2021
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Issue of Free Speech and Hate Speech essay

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Encountering hate speech is inevitable. We see it on the internet, in public, and even on college campuses. This hate speech tends to make people uncomfortable, especially its targets. Time after time, hate speech has led to large conflicts across American colleges. This leads many to ask questions: should hate speech on college campuses be tolerated? What exactly is hate speech? College is supposed to provide an education, and many argue that hate speech causes a hostile environment which prevents adequate learning. While this may seem true, hate speech is a vital part of progress and education, and it needs to be tolerated as a part of free speech.

The largest concern of those who advocate against hate speech is that it hurts minorities. Laura Nielsen, a sociology professor, claims that hate speech “results in tangible harms” for its targets (Nielsen). This concern seems to make sense. According to empirical studies, being a target of racist speech can be “linked to cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder” (Nielsen). Thus, one may conclude hate speech is truly detrimental to the health of many racial minorities. It then seems perfectly logical that such hateful language should be punished in colleges for the sake of developing students. After all, if those subjected to hate speech truly experience such negative effects, it is unlikely that they will be able to focus on their education and future. However, these concerns are not as logical as they first appear.

If someone is debating whether hate speech should be accepted and tolerated, they must define what hate speech is. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines hate speech as “speech expressing hatred of a particular group of people” (“Hate Speech”). This definition seems vague, and indeed it is. This is the largest problem when limiting hate speech; there is no way for anybody to determine what hate speech truly is. If colleges started to restrict certain language, students would be left discontent. Some would feel that they were still victims of discrimination, despite the fact that they were supposed to be protected. Others would find themselves unsure of what to say around others, concerned about crossing the line that schools had set. Hate speech is not a simple problem, and therefore in cannot be solved with a simple solution.

This unsatisfying definition contributes to the inconclusiveness of studies on the effects of hate speech, despite what they and their supporters may claim. There are too many variables regarding what hate speech is. When someone claims that racial slurs have affected their mental or physical health, they may be right. But, there is no way to truly study or understand if that speech had hurt them. This is not to say that hate speech is not wrong. There is no denying that harming someone, either physically or verbally, to any capacity, is cruel. But to assume one definition of hate speech and apply it to the American education system is also wrong and can lead to just as many conflicts.

Hate speech is a necessary evil in a free society. Without it, a free society cannot exist. Free speech plays a large role in nations like America. It has lead to tremendous amounts of progress; without free speech, America would not symbolise freedom and liberty as it does today. Hate speech has allowed activists to further discuss and solve issues on race, gender, religion, sexuality, and many other topics. What many don’t realize, is that hate speech is part of this revolutionary liberty. Benjamin Franklin, a founding father of America, explained that hate speech “ought to be repressed; but to who dare we commit the care of doing it” (Franklin).

Franklin was a federalist and believed in a strong central government; a government which controlled the country for the better of its people. But, like many others who witnessed the birth of the Bill of Rights, he realized that to escape tyranny, citizens needed to be able to speak their minds. Hate speech is just that, hateful. But to repress it would be to repress all free speech, destroying the very foundations of a free society. Free speech and hate speech do not just coexist, they are connected. Though it may not be appreciated, hate speech is a sign that America is doing its job in protecting the liberty of its citizens.

Limiting hate speech does little to help limit hate in society. Becca Dipietro, an intern at the Center for American Progress, argues that restricting hate speech “demonstrates a goal of compassion and understanding” (Dipietro). This is an understandable argument. If there is less hate spoken, there is less hate spread. It is true that the goal of restricting hate speech has good intentions, but, unfortunately, the problem is not so easily solved.

Restricting hate speech does not limit the amount of hate in the world, in fact, it could increase it. Often times, those who exhibit hateful behaviors feel as though they have never been heard. These people have bitter beliefs and generally think that they are superior to others. And, when they feel that they are repressed, they are more likely to want to act on those beliefs, believing it is their right to do so. As The Atlantic writer Luke O’Brien explains, the sudden swing in politics after the 2016 presidential election had people feeling that “suddenly it was okay to talk about banning Muslims or to cast Mexican immigrants as criminals and parasites” (O’Brien). This has also contributed to the large rise in neo-nazis, both in America and all over the world. Even without legal censors, people with such racist thoughts held onto their beliefs in silence.

Whether or not hate speech is restricted, hate will always exist. So, instead of censoring it, we should be fighting using our own free speech. The right to free speech contributes to the right to discuss, argue, and protest. These are rights that people who oppose hate speech must use to their advantage. Lee Rowland, a Senior Staff Attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) suggests that fighting hate speech “means being an advocate: speaking out and convincing others” (Rowland). If college students truly want to learn on a less hateful campus, they must be prepared to engage in controversial discussions. If someone is not ready to convince a hateful person that they are wrong, then they are not truly devoted to eliminating hate, whether in school or throughout the country. The fact of the matter is that while hate speech may be unpleasant, or even downright horrifying, understanding and speaking against it is the only way to make change. That is why Americans were given the right of free speech in the first place: to change their country for the better.

Perhaps the only time hate speech should be restricted is for personal threats and legally defined harassment. While the allowance of hate speech actually leads to progression in society through conversation and expression of ideas, discriminatory based violence does not. This is why America has laws to protect its citizens and students when it comes to physical harm (Rowland). Threats of violence, for any reason, are not allowed under American law. Discriminatory actions are also unacceptable, which is why the United States government has ensured that minorities are provided with their civil rights.

Title VII, for example, does not allow for employment discrimination in regards to race, religion, sex, or nationality (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964). It is these laws and actions from the government which protect minorities from hateful actions. They are not left to fend for themselves, as some may claim. Instead, the government must focus on what it can constrict without limiting the rights of all citizens. While we cannot–and should not–limit hateful speech, we can limit hateful actions which affect the lives of many minorities.

Hate speech seems harmful on the surface, but free speech is not a surface level topic. America was founded on the idea of freedom, and this is reflected in out First Amendment. While hate speech seems like a painful problem, allowing it provides us with the ability to progress as a society. In fact, hate speech is a key factor in many progressive movements. Without hate speech, America would be left with silent bigots, with little hope of reformation Instead of restricting hate speech in colleges, students must use their own free speech to argue for what is right. By doing this, colleges, and out country, can because a safer, and less hateful place.

Works Cited

  1. Franklin, Benjamin . ‘On the Freedom of Speech and The Press.’ Pennsylvania Gazette 1737 Print.
  2. Nielsen, Laura Beth. ‘The Case for Restricting Hate Speech.’ Los Angeles Times [Los Angeles] 21 Jun. 2017 Print.
  3. Rowland, Lee. ‘We All Need to Defend Speech We Hate.’ Inside Source 25 Apr. 2017 Print.
  4. DiPietro, Becca. “There’s a World of Difference Between Free Speech and Hate Speech.” Center for American Progress, 21 Apr. 2017, www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/news/2017/ 04/21/431002/theres-world-difference-free-speech-hate-speech/.
  5. “Hate Speech.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hate%20speech.
  6. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, www.eeoc.gov/laws/statutes/titlevii.cfm.
  7. O’Brien, Luke. “The Making of an American Nazi.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 14 Nov. 2017, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/12/the-making-of-an-american-nazi/544119/.
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