Free Speech Isn't Free

A system that tolerates "hate speech" is probably superior to the alternatives, but defenders of an absolute right can't pretend no one gets hurt.
Members of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church protest outside a prayer rally in Houston in 2011. (Richard Carson/Reuters)

Millions of Americans support free speech. They firmly believe that we are the only country to have free speech, and that anyone who even questions free speech had damn well better shut the #$%& up.

Case in point: In a recent essay in The Daily Beast, Fordham Law Professor Thane Rosenbaum notes that European countries and Israel outlaw certain kinds of speech—Nazi symbols, anti-Semitic slurs, and Holocaust denial, and speech that incites hatred on the basis of race, religion, and so forth. The American law of free speech, he argues, assumes that the only function of law is to protect people against physical harm; it tolerates unlimited emotional harm. Rosenbaum cites recent studies (regrettably, without links) that show that "emotional harm is equal in intensity to that experienced by the body, and is even more long-lasting and traumatic." Thus, the victims of hate speech, he argues, suffer as much as or more than victims of hate crime. "Why should speech be exempt from public welfare concerns when its social costs can be even more injurious [than that of physical injury]?"

I believe—strongly—in the free-speech system we have. But most of the responses to Rosenbaum leave me uneasy. I think defenders of free speech need to face two facts: First, the American system of free speech is not the only one; most advanced democracies maintain relatively open societies under a different set of rules. Second, our system isn't cost-free. Repressing speech has costs, but so does allowing it. The only mature way to judge the system is to look at both sides of the ledger.

Most journalistic defenses of free speech take the form of "shut up and speak freely." The Beast itself provides Exhibit A: Cultural news editor Michael Moynihan announced that "we're one of the few countries in the Western world that takes freedom of speech seriously," and indignantly defended it against "those who pretend to be worried about trampling innocents in a crowded theater but are more interested in trampling your right to say whatever you damn well please." To Moynihan, Rosenbaum could not possibly be sincere or principled; he is just a would-be tyrant. The arguments about harm were "thin gruel"—not even worth answering. Moynihan's response isn't really an argument; it's a defense of privilege, like a Big Tobacco paean to the right to smoke in public.

In contrast to this standard-issue tantrum is a genuinely thoughtful and appropriate response from Jonathan Rauch at The Volokh Conspiracy, now a part of the Washington Post's web empire. Rauch responds that

painful though hate speech may be for individual members of minorities or other targeted groups, its toleration is to their great collective benefit, because in a climate of free intellectual exchange hateful and bigoted ideas are refuted and discredited, not merely suppressed .... That is how we gay folks achieved the stunning gains we've made in America: by arguing toward truth.

I think he's right. But the argument isn't complete without conceding something most speech advocates don't like to admit:

Free speech does do harm.

It does a lot of harm.

And while it may produce social good much of the time, there's no guarantee—no "invisible hand" of the intellectual market—that ensures that on balance it does more good than harm. As Rauch says, it has produced a good result in the case of the gay-rights movement. But sometimes it doesn't.

Europeans remember a time when free speech didn't produce a happy ending. They don't live in a North Korea-style dystopia. They do "take free speech seriously," and in fact many of them think their system of free speech is freer than ours. Their view of human rights was forged immediately after World War II, and one lesson they took from it was that democratic institutions can be destroyed from within by forces like the Nazis who use mass communication to dehumanize whole races and religions, preparing the population to accept exclusion and even extermination. For that reason, some major human-rights instruments state that "incitement" to racial hatred, and "propaganda for war," not only may but must be forbidden. The same treaties strongly protect freedom of expression and opinion, but they set a boundary at what we call "hate speech."

It's a mistake to think that the U.S. system goes back to the foundation of the republic. At the end of World War II, in fact, our law was about the same as Europe's is today. The Supreme Court in Beauharnais v. Illinois (1952) upheld a state "group libel" law that made it a crime to publish anything that "exposes the citizens of any race, color, creed or religion to contempt, derision, or obloquy." European countries outlawed fascist and neo-Nazi parties; in the 1951 case Dennis v. United States, the Supreme Court upheld a federal statute that in essence outlawed the Communist Party as a "conspiracy" to advocate overthrowing the U.S. government. Justice Robert H. Jackson, who had been the chief U.S. prosecutor of Nazi war criminals, concurred in Dennis, warning that totalitarianism had produced "the intervention between the state and the citizen of permanently organized, well financed, semi-secret and highly disciplined political organizations." A totalitarian party "denies to its own members at the same time the freedom to dissent, to debate, to deviate from the party line, and enforces its authoritarian rule by crude purges, if nothing more violent." Beauharnais, Dennis, and similar cases were criticized at the time, and today they seem grievously wrong. But many thoughtful people supported those results at the time.

U.S. law only began to protect hateful speech during the 1960s. The reason, in retrospect, is clear—repressive Southern state governments were trying to criminalize the civil-rights movement for its advocacy of change. White Southerners claimed (and many really believed) that the teachings of figures like Martin Luther King or Malcolm X were "hate speech" and would produce "race war." By the end of the decade, the Court had held that governments couldn't outlaw speech advocating law violation or even violent revolution. Neither Black Panthers nor the KKK nor Nazi groups could be marked off as beyond the pale purely on the basis of their message.

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Garrett Epps is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He teaches constitutional law and creative writing for law students at the University of Baltimore. His latest book is American Justice 2014: Nine Clashing Visions on the Supreme Court.

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