Free Speech Vs. Hate Speech: Who Draws The Line?


“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never harm me” is an old rhyme that in today’s highly politicized world has totally lost all meaning. Names are flung between those of competing beliefs with social punishments and even loss of fundamental freedoms coming with it.

All of this is due to the so-called “hate speech exemption” to the free speech part of the First Amendment. Most people who have bothered to study the constitution know there is no such exemption. In fact, “hate speech” is exactly what it is designed to protect. No one cares much if you greet a neighbor with a “hello there,” but in many places, an awful lot is now off limits. It used to be that “everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it” was a cute statement. But several newspaper chains refuse openly to carry articles or even letters criticizing climate change. So we can’t even talk about the weather any more.

The rise of social media giants has given a small number of people a huge say in the national conversation. When Facebook or Twitter or other organizations ban your statements, you have lost your freedom. Remember the old science conundrum: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” If someone wants to block you and can, you have just been deprived of a key right.

The worst part of this is that many of the excisions from conversation are uncalled for and occasionally ridiculous. Facebook removed a posting from the Anne Frank Museum commemorating the upcoming Holocaust Day because it had famous images of naked starving children from concentration camps on it. Child pornography, they said. After a huge bout of finger pointing at this stupidity, they returned the picture to the fold. Through all of this, they had no trouble with sites focusing on Holocaust denial and calls for genocide of the Jews in Israel.

The real problem with this “exemption” is that it is often impossible to decide impartially on what is hate speech. At many colleges, anything from conservatives is labeled as such, and student activists disrupt events. One person’s perspective may be another’s hate speech. We have seen a right-wing nut run down someone on the left, and some of us have actually watched violent riots by Antifa, a group that has committed hundreds of acts of violence but has been defended by some.

Historically, leaders have seldom listened to the people. Cromwell told church groups in Scotland, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” When they refused to listen, he moved in and conquered them. Our leaders today should listen to all of us, but many only get one side or another. We have not progressed far from Cromwell.

We need all sides of discussions. A real lot of heat in discussions can cast light on topics. When you listen with at least a modicum of respect to the idiot who has the temerity to disagree with you, you might learn something.

For years, those with liberal views were shut out of discussions. It seemed easy to denounce them. And we’ve had generations of news people who have criticized things like that, demanding a full discussion of all sides. But recently those same people have decided that arguments from those on the right are automatically hate speech and are shut down.

If you are able to prevent hearing alternative views, you will not change, will not learn. I read about college students who now have “safe spaces” they can retreat to when someone who might not agree with them is on campus. Those kids should do wonderfully well in the real world.

I know deep in my heart that those who disagree with me are by definition wrong. But I often find that listening to some argument that at the moment seems preposterous, I start to alter my views. I am a learning animal, as all humans are meant to be. And I know the only person who should control my freedom to speak out and listen should be me.