Columns, Opinions

Cardoso ’19: ‘Free speech’ isn’t a license to hate

By
staff columnist
Tuesday, February 14, 2017

When protesters recently prevented Milo Yiannopoulos — a Breitbart editor and seasoned provocateur, a la Ann Coulter — from speaking at a scheduled event at the campus of University of California at Berkeley, free speech advocates were stirred into action from across the political spectrum, castigated the cancellation as a dangerous attack on constitutional rights and chided the protesters for what was probably a pyrrhic victory. In preventing him from speaking, the protestors played right into his narrative claiming that the left is opposed to free speech. After all, prohibiting hate speech is basically tantamount to clamping down on free thought, right?

Well, not really. The underlying principle of this argument is that free expression gives us a peaceful and organized forum through which we can test our ideas. Indeed, Oliver Wendell Holmes once analogized free speech to “free trade in ideas” within “the competition of the market.” Many reasonable voices have held that though Yiannopoulos is nakedly racist, it is exactly because there is a right to free expression that his ideas can be shamed and marginalized. Other defenders seem instead to practically relish in the cruelty of making the argument that no matter how putrid or anathema to American values certain speech may be, it is sacrosanct according to the constitution.

Yet, free speech is not an unqualified right. At least not in the legal sense. The metaphor of “shouting fire in a crowded theater” was used to justify limiting free speech that posed an immediate threat to others by, incidentally, none other than Holmes. In Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, the court held that fighting words — speech or writing meant to elicit violence — were not constitutionally protected either. While the court has narrowed the fighting words doctrine in recent years, the principle that free speech can be circumscribed when it violates the rights of others still persists, even if jurists have thus far refused to apply it to hate speech.

And violate the rights of others hate speech certainly does. Even if the victims of hate speech are procedurally protected equally under the law, they may not experience equality if their dignity can be demeaned with impunity. Many marginalized groups that find themselves on the receiving end of bigoted invective might technically enjoy equal legal protection, but that technical legal equality doesn’t protect them from a diminished sense of dignity and belonging. Indeed, when we begin to prioritize abstract philosophical principles over protecting human dignity, we’re no longer simply letting the “free trade in ideas” sweep away the undesirable ones. We’re rationalizing calls for oppression and violence.

Others will say that while morally reprehensible, the grandstanding of fringe elements, like the so-called “alt-right,” is generally innocuous. I physically recoil when I hear this argument. Hate speech doesn’t simply reveal that the speaker holds harmful views, but actually has consequences. Harmful ideas enter the discourse and encourage others to express them, making them prevalent and part of a new normal that readily justifies lashing out at groups that are blamed for the ills in society. For example, in 2015, two Boston men beat a Latino man with a metal pole and then proceeded to urinate on him. Their justification was that he was “homeless,” “Hispanic” and “an illegal immigrant” and that “Donald Trump was right.”

Ultimately, free expression and thoughtful dialogue are among the essential tenets of a healthy liberal democracy, and you’ll be hard pressed to find many who challenge that notion in the mainstream or on the fringes. However, it is still necessary that we appreciate the need to balance that invaluable right to free expression with the need to protect human dignity and limit hateful ideas. In the end, while it is easy to reflexively rebuke the protestors at UC Berkeley for violating Yiannopoulos’ right to express himself, we need to ask ourselves if philosophical abstractions are more valuable than a pluralistic and tolerant society that guarantees all of its inhabitants respect for their dignity and safety.

Connor Cardoso ’19 can be reached at connor_cardoso@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.