The Tully Center for Free Speech

Free Speech Zone

The importance of protecting speech you hate

By Angela Rulffes, June 19, 2016

Lately, news surrounding free speech, political campaigns and safe spaces has become interesting. There seems to be an uptick in attempts to silence unwanted speech. For example, protestors in Chicago successfully shut down a Trump rally, a student journalist at the University of Missouri was told he could not take pictures of a public protest that was being held on state-owned property, and students at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia advocated for censorship when saying they felt threatened by pro-Trump slogans.

In fact, there are some people who say they are comfortable with government censorship of speech. For example, in November 2015, the Pew Research Center published data indicating that 40% of Millennials polled think the government should make it illegal to use offensive speech about minorities. In February 2016, 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair published the results of another free speech poll, indicating that 46% of the people who took the poll felt that changing language to avoid excluding certain groups is helpful, and 60% of those polled thought that people who engage in hate speech are more dangerous than those who silence hate speech.

These numbers are not entirely surprising, but they do prompt a certain consideration about what it really means to protect speech that we truly despise and the dangers of advocating for any type of censorship.

Hate speech is ugly, and it’s cruel. It tends to be ignorant and misinformed. It often promotes stereotypes and leads to the exclusion of groups of people. It is hurtful and can have some very real and lasting effects on those targeted. It can make people feel insecure, unwelcome and sometimes even threatened.

So if hate speech is so terrible, then why protect it? In fact, why would we ever fight for the speech rights of those we disagree with? If we don’t like what someone else has to say, why not just force them to be silent?

The answer to those questions lies within the principle foundation of free speech and the slippery slope the inevitably occurs when opinions are suppressed due to a fervent dislike of the message.  One of the most strongly worded arguments in favor of free speech was written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in his dissent in Abrams v. United States. In Abrams, Justice Holmes wrote that “under the theory of our Constitution” the “ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas.” [1] He further stated that “we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.” [2]

Holmes was pointing out that at the very foundation of our Constitution is the basic understanding that speech is free, and it will only remain free if we are steadfast against censorship. Of, course, it is important to note, as Holmes did, that true unlawful threats are not protected by the Constitution.

In Friends of Voltaire, author Evelyn Beatrice Hall (writing under the pseudonym S. G. Tallentyre), wrote “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”[3] This quote has long held my interest, and it offers a glimpse of the type of strength and conviction that is necessary in order to understand the foundations of free speech.

True strength is not found in demands for the government to silence all speech that you personally consider vile. It is instead found in the ability to stand up for speech that you despise and argue loudly, and with conviction, that this is the very type of speech that needs protection. It is easy to argue that speech you love should be allowed. It is difficult to admit that speech you abhor is, nonetheless, free.

Take, for example, the strength of David Goldberger, a Jewish attorney. In the late 1970s, the National Socialist Party of America, a neo-Nazi group, decided it wanted to hold a march in Skokie, Illinois. The town, a small suburb of Chicago, was filled with mostly Jewish residents, some of whom were Holocaust survivors. [4] There is no question that the words and ideas promoted by the Nazi group were hateful toward Jewish people, and the town’s officials did what they could to stop the march. Goldberger, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, took a surprising stance in deciding to defend the very people who were spewing hatred about his culture. [5] Goldberger argued for the National Socialists Party’s right to speak before the U.S. Supreme Court, and he won. [6]

Earlier in that case, the Illinois Supreme Court decided the “use of the swastika is a symbolic form of free speech entitled to First Amendment protections. Its display on uniforms or banners by those engaged in peaceful demonstrations cannot be totally precluded solely because that display may provoke a violent reaction by those who view it.” [7] In addition, the court stated that “A speaker who gives prior notice of his message has not compelled a confrontation with those who voluntarily listen.” [8]

Some people suggest that a few, specific words are so hateful they need to be banned. It is certainly true that some words were coined simply to propagate hate and ridicule. The use of those words should never be defended. Rather, it is the ability to use those words that is at stake – and there is a distinction between these two concepts. You can defend the right of a person to say certain words without defending the meaning behind the words. Really what is at issue is your own right to speak. In other words, your defense of the rights of others to speak will also help to protect your own speech rights.

Advocating for the silencing of speech almost always leads to dangerous grounds. Censorship is called a “slippery slope” for a reason. Once you begin to suppress speech, there is a real concern of where and how to draw boundaries. One problem is that the offensiveness of speech is subjective. Something that offends you to your core may not offend your neighbor – yet the opposite is also true. If every person, or groups of people, wrote down all the words that offended him/her/them, how long would that list be? Would there be new words added every day? Would one group’s hatred of a word be considered more valid than another? Some Emerson students said they felt threated by pro-Trump slogans. Should those slogans be banned from college campuses? What if students say they feel threatened by Bernie Sanders’ campaign? Should pro-Bernie slogans be banned? What if Donald Trump decides that he feels threatened by all anti-Trump speech? Should that speech be banned?

The United States was founded on the principle that the government should not have the power to censor speech. Advocating for the suppression of speech is, in fact, encouraging government censorship. For example, if you are asking a state or federal actor to make certain speech illegal or to stop speech from happening, you are supporting government censorship. This is something the country’s founding fathers worked vigorously to oppose.

There are some who suggest that people need to get “thicker skin.” As children we often hear the adage: “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” Of course, that is not true. Words can hurt. They can cut to the quick and leave lasting impressions. No matter the thickness of your skin, it is likely that in your lifetime you will be hurt by the words of another. It is easy to argue that hurtful speech should be suppressed. It is easy to want that type of speech to be suppressed. It would certainly be a better world if people stopped spewing hatred at each other. The critical issue, however, is that opening the door to any censorship paves the way for all censorship.

Instead of urging the government to suppress the speech that we do not want to hear, we should take the advice of Oliver Wendell Holmes and fight speech with speech. The free trade of ideas is the best solution, even if it means advocating for the protection of speech you abhor.

[1] Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616, 630 (1919).
[2] Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616, 630 (1919).
[3] Tallentyre, S. G. (1906). The friends of Voltaire. Smith, Elder., p. 199.
[4] Pizzolato, J. The Nazis in Skokie. AREA Chicago. Retrieved from http://areachicago.org/the-nazis-in-skokie/
[5] Pizzolato, J. The Nazis in Skokie. AREA Chicago. Retrieved from http://areachicago.org/the-nazis-in-skokie/
[6] Pizzolato, J. The Nazis in Skokie. AREA Chicago. Retrieved from http://areachicago.org/the-nazis-in-skokie/)
[7] Village of Skokie v. Natl. Socialist Party of Am., 373 N.E.2d 21, 25-26 (Ill. 1978)
[8] Village of Skokie v. Natl. Socialist Party of Am., 373 N.E.2d 21, 25-26 (Ill. 1978)

Angela Rulffes is a Ph.D. student at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and a research assistant for the Tully Center for Free Speech.