The Perils of Restricting Hate Speech

A while back, the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed by Laura Beth Nielson arguing that there’s a case for restricting hate speech.

As a sociologist and legal scholar, I struggle to explain the boundaries of free speech to undergraduates. Despite the 1st Amendment—I tell my students—local, state, and federal laws limit all kinds of speech. We regulate advertising, obscenity, slander, libel, and inciting lawless action to name just a few. My students nod along until we get to racist and sexist speech. Some can’t grasp why, if we restrict so many forms of speech, we don’t also restrict hate speech.

That’s where things get wobbly:

The typical answer is that judges must balance benefits and harms.

Okay…this feels awkward… Nielsen is a professor of sociology and the director of the legal studies program at Northwestern University, and she’s also a research professor at the American Bar Foundation, whereas I’m just a loudmouthed blogger. And yet…I’m pretty sure she’s wrong.

The limits on our First Amendment rights are narrowly defined, and to the extent that those rights are balanced, it’s not by judges. First Amendment lawyer Ken White explains the distinction, in another LAT piece:

Censorship advocates often tell us we need to balance the freedom of speak with the harm that speech does. This is arguable philosophically, but it is wrong legally. American courts don’t decide whether to protect speech by balancing its harm against its benefit; they ask only if it falls into a specific 1st Amendment exception. As the Supreme Court recently put it, “[t]he First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech does not extend only to categories of speech that survive an ad hoc balancing of relative social costs and benefits. The First Amendment itself reflects a judgment by the American people that the benefits of its restrictions on the Government outweigh the costs.”

Back to Nielson:

At the same time, our regime of free speech protects the powerful and popular. Many city governments, for instance, have banned panhandling at the behest of their business communities. The legal justification is that the targets of begging (commuters, tourists, and consumers) have important and legitimate purposes for being in public: to get to work or to go shopping. The law therefore protects them from aggressive requests for money.

Yeah, I’m not a big fan of some of those anti-panhandling laws either.

Consider also the protections afforded to soldiers’ families in the case of Westboro Baptist anti-gay demonstrations. When the Supreme Court in 2011 upheld that church’s right to stage offensive protests at veterans’ funerals, Congress passed the Honoring America’s Veterans’ Act, which prohibits any protests 300 to 500 feet around such funerals.

Again, Nielson is some kind of expert and I’m not, but…I’m pretty sure that particular law is written in a way that is viewpoint neutral: It doesn’t prohibit protests based on the content of the protesters’ speech. In fact, it doesn’t prohibit protests at all. It prohibits disrupting veterans’ funerals.

Nielson does go on to make an important point in what I think is the best part of her piece:

So soldiers’ families, shoppers and workers are protected from troubling speech. People of color, women walking down public streets or just living in their dorm on a college campus are not. The only way to justify this disparity is to argue that commuters asked for money on the way to work experience a tangible harm, while women catcalled and worse on the way to work do not — as if being the target of a request for change is worse than being racially disparaged by a stranger.

In fact, empirical data suggest that frequent verbal harassment can lead to various negative consequences. Racist hate speech has been linked to cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and requires complex coping strategies. Exposure to racial slurs also diminishes academic performance. Women subjected to sexualized speech may develop a phenomenon of “self-objectification,” which is associated with eating disorders.

These negative physical and mental health outcomes — which embody the historical roots of race and gender oppression — mean that hate speech is not “just speech.” Hate speech is doing something. It results in tangible harms that are serious in and of themselves and that collectively amount to the harm of subordination. The harm of perpetuating discrimination. The harm of creating inequality.

This part of Nielson’s argument is a solid explanation of why hate speech is unethical. In fact, I would go further: One of my recurring themes around here, usually in connection with economics, is that just because some benefit or cost isn’t tangible doesn’t mean it isn’t real. So even if people hurt by hate speech didn’t suffer tangible harms, they may still have suffered harm. For lack of a better word, their “hurt feelings” matter.

The hard part, however, is figuring out what to do about it. It is here that Nielson’s argument runs into the usual problems.

Instead of characterizing racist and sexist hate speech as “just speech,” courts and legislatures need to account for this research and, perhaps, allow the restriction of hate speech as do all of the other economically advanced democracies in the world.

Many readers will find this line of thinking repellent. They will insist that protecting hate speech is consistent with and even central to our founding principles. They will argue that regulating hate speech would amount to a serious break from our tradition. They will trivialize the harms that social science research undeniably associates with being the target of hate speech, and call people seeking recognition of these affronts “snowflakes.”

But these free-speech absolutists must at least acknowledge two facts. First, the right to speak already is far from absolute. Second, they are asking disadvantaged members of our society to shoulder a heavy burden with serious consequences. Because we are “free” to be hateful, members of traditionally marginalized groups suffer.

I acknowledge both of these facts, but I don’t think they get Nielson where she wants to go.

Actually, Nielson never says where she wants to go. Beyond a vague statement that “courts and legislatures need to…perhaps, allow the restriction of hate speech,” she never spells out what remedy she wants for the problem she identifies. So let’s get that out in the open: In order to protect members of traditionally marginalized groups from hateful speech, Nielson wants to make hate speech a crime.

How do you think that will turn out?

Pop quiz: If a middle-aged white guy walking down the street in a business suit calls a black woman a “cunt,” and at the same time in a different part of town a young black male walking down the street in baggy pants and a do-rag calls a white woman a “cunt,” which one of them is more likely to be arrested for hate speech? Which one is more likely to be stuck in jail because they can’t make bail? Which one is more likely to be pressured into pleading guilty because they are locked up? Which one is more likely to serve time in a cage? Which one is more likely to have trouble finding a job because they have a criminal record?

Oh, I’m sure there will be a few high-profile prosecutions of racist white guys — maybe some prosecutor will try to make his bones prosecuting Milo Yiannopoulos or Richard Spencer — but you’re kidding yourself if you think most of the arrests won’t be of people from the same groups that always get arrested for petty crimes: Blacks, Hispanics, poor people, immigrants, and the mentally ill.

History has shown that creating whole new reasons for incarceration rarely works out well for members of traditionally marginalized groups. Make hate speech a crime, and sooner or later we’ll be reading stories about a 45-year-old homeless black man killed by cops who were arresting him for a racist slur.

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