Debating Hate Speech

>Last week I engaged in an online Intelligence Squared debate about hate speech with Femi Otitoju, a British diversity consultant and unwavering advocate of hate speech legislation. I've participated in many similar debates over the years, but this was the first that left me feeling grateful to be an American. I've often used my speech rights to lament declining support for free speech in this country, especially on college and university campuses and especially among progressives; but if Otitoju's views are at all representative of popular or elite opinion in Britain, then, by comparison, America is practically a Millsian paradise (if you stay out of academia and off of government blacklists).   

Unlike so many American advocates of regulating hateful or offensive speech who nonsensically insist that they oppose censorship, but ... "free speech doesn't include hate speech" or "free speech doesn't include a right to offend" (as if we could prohibit unpopular speech and still enjoy a right to speak freely), Otitoju forthrightly disavowed a commitment to free speech, paying not even lip service to liberty. Her acknowledged opposition to speech rights was refreshingly candid, as well as a reflection of the cultural and legal environment in which she operates; if American advocates of censorship lived in Britain they might stop pretending to support free speech too.

Otitoju's candor was also informative, clearly revealing the values underlying campaigns to restrict speech in the putative interests of equality: I asserted that freedom of speech and belief includes the freedom to hate, and if we value liberty, we cannot demand a right to be protected from the emotional harm presumably inflicted by another's speech. Since Otitoju didn't pretend to value liberty (or value it much), she countered that we do indeed have such emotional rights and the state should affirmatively protect our emotional well-being and our self-esteem. When she talked about people who were harmed by hate speech, I remembered  people harmed by hate speech prohibitions.  (Visit thefire.org for examples.)

I regard free speech as a fundamental moral right, a normative as well as instrumental value. She treats speech rights as immoral when they involve expressions of hatred. She aims for a society in which people feel "safe" from exposure to the hateful feelings of others. I aim for one in which people can safely harbor and express their ideals and emotions, including their hatreds. She asserts that the law can regulate speech without regulating emotion or belief; I assert that emotions, beliefs, and speech are inextricably bound: I shape my ideas by articulating them; writing is how I formulate and clarify my thoughts. She regards hate speech as conduct; (censors often conflate speech and action). I insist that it's speech. In other words, if our debate had devolved into an exchange of epithets, if we'd hurled hateful names at each other, then according to her standards, we would each have been guilty of criminal conduct. I'd say we were guilty of embarrassing ourselves.  

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

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