In 1978, a Jewish lawyer named David Goldberger defended the rights of American Nazis to march through the streets of Skokie, Ill. Skokie was and is home to thousands of Holocaust survivors.
A Jew defending Nazis? Why? Not only did he and the ACLU defend the Nazis, he won. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the right of the National Socialist Party of America to march . The Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal, validating the developing national policy that even the most unpopular of speech in the most unpopular of circumstances merited First Amendment protection.
What Professor Goldberg knew and defended is what many in this country do not realize, which is that the United States of America stands alone in its unbridled protection of free speech which includes the most unpopular and the vilest hate speech. You would be hard pressed to find any other country that does not criminalize hate speech in some form, including countries we would consider “free” by our standards.
How a particular country views hate speech depends on its history and social norms that are each distinct and unique. The United States is no exception. Each country also defines hate speech according to its own values. What might get you a slap on the wrist in one country may result in stiff prison sentences in another. On that note it has been interesting to follow what has been going on in Kenya. They have been engaged in massive crackdown under their hate speech laws. Many there view hate speech as an affront to all social norms and values. The view was stated succinctly in an article entitled: “Purveyors Of Hate Speech Are Kenya’s Enemies”
“So, why is it so hard for some media houses to spot the phenomenon, recognise(sic) it for the malignancy and threat to civilised(sic) society that it is, isolate it and only report or comment on it in the most circumspect manner, the way profanities are rendered in print in polite society?”
It goes on to state:
“Hate speech is the precursor of hate action and the herald of attempts at, or actual, genocide”.
How do these opinions and philosophies translate to the almost absolute freedom we have in the United States to spew hatred including racial epitaphs and general intolerance of those we do not agree with, pray with or look like. Not very well. We can try to regulate violent actions but we simply can not universalize a moral compass where speech is concerned. It is an impossibility where the ability to engage in unpopular speech is so tightly interwoven into the inception and growth of the United States as a nation. It is not that we have not sporadically tried to do so. The Supreme Court has not always been sympathetic to free speech.
What is unfortunate is that the freedoms we enjoy today to belly up to extremes has resulted in a lack of meaning to the rhetoric. Hate speech with meaning is not always hate speech. It is the backbone of government accountability. In the 21st Century however ,hate speech as a term of battle has been thrown around so freely that we simply shrug it off as pundit putridity. Words like Sedition, Insurrection, Treason and Terrorism have become watered down to the extent that they no longer emotionally register. They have become nothing more than terms of art expected and shrugged off. What we are left with is a lot of doggies barking about nothing in-particular, trying to see who can bark the loudest. The cure is not to muzzle the dogs. It is to teach our children not to feed the animals. That is where the freedom for the thought that we hate is unleashed. That is where battle against hate speech begins.