a case against free speech (not)

In today’s LA Times, a sociologist and legal scholar makes the case for restricting hate speech, on the grounds that not doing so subjects the “disadvantaged members of our society to shoulder a heavy burden with serious consequences.”

But she makes no mention of the fact that freedom of speech laws have actually protected the disadvantaged throughout our nation’s history. In fact, the first to suffer when speech becomes restricted are the disadvantaged, because they, by definition, lack the power to defend their rights of expression.

For example, during the Civil Rights Movement, black Americans were actually sent to jail for protesting segregation. The basis for which they were jailed was that they were in violation of speech restrictions! Some were even arrested for offenses as banal as praying on the steps of the Albany City Hall. One of those individuals you may have heard of, his name was Martin Luther King.

A year or so later, King and other movement leaders were ordered by Birmingham Sheriff, Bull Connor, that they were not allowed to engage in “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing,” or even “conduct customarily known as ‘kneel-ins’ in churches.” According to the ACLU, “It was King’s violation of this injunction that landed him in prison for the stint during which he wrote the famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” (See the ACLU article in the comments for more examples of egregious violations of constitutionally protected speech during the Civil Rights Movement.)

The professor who wrote this opinion piece is presumably aware of this history, but she leaves it out of her argument here. We are left to suppose that she has faith that a system which regulates “hate” (an ambiguous word on a good day) would only ever do so in a way that upholds her own (biased/political) definitions of what that word means. The very fact that she is making this argument amidst a Donald Trump presidency is baffling to me. But I guess nothing can be that surprising on the Internet.

I conclude with a quote from the article from the ACLU, “If we don’t stand up for the First Amendment when racist speech is censored, it is the weak, the powerless, minorities, and those who seek change who will be hurt most in the end.”

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