There is no question that images ridiculing religion, however offensive they may be to believers, qualify as protected free speech in the United States and most Western democracies. There is also no question that however offensive the images, they do not justify murder, and that it is incumbent on leaders of all religious faiths to make this clear to their followers.
But it is equally clear that the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest in Garland, Tex., was not really about free speech. It was an exercise in bigotry and hatred posing as a blow for freedom.
That distinction is critical because the conflicts that have erupted over depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, most notably the massacre of staff members at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in January by two Muslim brothers, have generated a furious and often confused debate about free speech versus hate speech. The current dispute at the American chapter of the PEN literary organization over its selection of Charlie Hebdo for a freedom of expression courage award is a case in point — hundreds of PEN’s members have opposed the selection for “valorizing selectively offensive material.”
Charlie Hebdo is a publication whose stock in trade has always been graphic satires of politicians and religions, whether Catholic, Jewish or Muslim. By contrast, Pamela Geller, the anti-Islam campaigner behind the Texas event, has a long history of declarations and actions motivated purely by hatred for Muslims.
Whether fighting against a planned mosque near ground zero, posting to her venomous blog Atlas Shrugs or organizing the event in Garland, Ms. Geller revels in assailing Islam in terms reminiscent of virulent racism or anti-Semitism. She achieved her provocative goal in Garland — the event was attacked by two Muslims who were shot to death by a traffic officer before they killed anyone.
Those two men were would-be murderers. But their thwarted attack, or the murderous rampage of the Charlie Hebdo killers, or even the greater threat posed by the barbaric killers of the Islamic State or Al Qaeda, cannot justify blatantly Islamophobic provocations like the Garland event. These can serve only to exacerbate tensions and to give extremists more fuel.Continue reading the main story
The world we live in is not shiny and bright as we would all like it to be. Sometimes it is dark, twisted, and filled with animosity. This is ultimately something we must all learn to live with, for the world is not perfect and neither are we. One of the imperfections one will notice in this world is that of hate speech. When it comes to hate speech, I believe that one should not try to limit one’s view no matter how offensive or painful it is. We all have our own thoughts about what our world should be like. However, I do believe one should have respect for one another’s view and not impede upon it or make them feel oppressed. Through speech, great things can be accomplished and obstacles can be overcome. Furthermore, when it comes to whether or not hate speech should be punishable by law, I do not believe that it should be, due to the protection of the first amendment, our freedom of speech. I do believe, however, that this continuous conflict should addressed through society and use our first amendment right to advantage.
What is Hate Speech?
Hate speech in the United States of America, like in many other countries, is not anything new. It has found a way to keep its grip on society for centuries and does not appear to be dissipating. It appears it is here to stay until we ourselves can find a way to resolve it. As it has been defined by law,
‘Hate Speech is a communication that carries no meaning other than the expression of hatred for some group, especially in circumstances in which the communication is likely to provoke violence. It is an incitement to hatred primarily against a group of persons defined in terms of race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, and the like. Hate speech can be any form of expression regarded as offensive to racial, ethnic and religious groups and other discrete minorities or to women’ (Law and legal).
Some definitions even go so far as to express the hate speech as ‘attacks, threats, or insults’ or as ‘weapons to ambush, terrorize, wound, humiliate, and degrade’ the individuals who were previously listed in the definition above (Dictionary.com; Cowan).
After reading such a definition, it is not a surprise one may feel such speech should be punishable by law, especially if he or she has experienced this type of treatment at one time or another in his or her life. Some individuals, such as Richard Delgado and Mari Matsuda, would agree with these individuals because they feel that hate speech impedes on one’s dignity and equality. However, as court cases in the United States have shown, it is rather difficult to prosecute someone on just their speech alone, even though it may affect the individual in some way. This is due to the universal idea that actions speak louder than words (Gerber, Cowan).
Freedom of Speech v. Dignity & Equality
As one looks into hate speech, he or she will begin to notice that there is a battle occurring between free speech and equality. On the one hand, people are fighting to support their first amendment rights; while on the other, some individuals are fighting to enforce restrictions on speech. By enforcing such restrictions, they have confidence that it will limit the effects hate speech has on its targets and will push for more equality, furthering support for fourteenth amendment rights (Gerber; historynetwork.org). Nonetheless, while each fights for the cause they value most, under law one takes more precedence over the other. Moreover, the ability to have free speech is an ability to produce more equality (Cowan).
In the United States Constitution, the first amendment states that ‘Congress shall make no law…abridging freedom of speech’ (uscourts.gov). This means that the government cannot make laws ‘regulating speech based on their disagreement with it or because society finds it offensive or unsavory’ (Juhan p. 1578). Therefore, under the first amendment, hate speech is considered a protected form of speech, regardless of how it affects the individual or group being targeted. However, in times in which speech appears to present a ‘true threat,’ such as demonstrating that it may ‘present a clear and present danger, is obscene, libelous, slanderous, or imminent,’ it may be addressed according to established laws (Smith, p.1).
In regards to the fourteenth amendment, the Constitution states ‘that every person has the right to be protected by the law, and that state law cannot deny individuals the equal protection of the law’ (Cowan p. 252). Therefore, it is no surprise that those who oppose hate speech would support this amendment more than the first amendment. Those who push for improving equality do so due to the protection the first amendment provides to hate speech and the effects it has on it victims. According to Cowan (2002), this form of speech impacts the lives of its victims by not only having a negative influence on ‘the targeted group or individual’s physiological and emotions state, but also their personal freedom, dignity, and personhood’ (p. 248). In conjunction to Cowan’s explanation as to how hate speech effects individuals, Mari Matsuda also states that victims may suffer from ‘nightmares, post-traumatic stress disorder, hypertension, psychosis, and suicide’ (Gerber, p.452).
After seeing the two amendments side by side, I can see why those who have been and are still being targeted would chose to enforce their fourteenth amendment right over their first. However, seeing as I primarily support our first amendment right to free speech, I feel it is important to remind individuals it this right that has allowed those being targeted to progress in American society through various movements, such as the civil rights and the women’s movement. Moreover, while the first amendment does protect hate speech, it does not make it a faulty amendment that needs altering but rather it is society that needs to be altered.
Methods Used to Battle Hate Speech
Throughout U.S. history, one will find that various targeted groups have been trying to battle this ongoing conflict through various avenues. They have pushed for legislations to be passed and have tried to implement speech code, especially on college campuses (Gerber, Juhan, Smith). Today, individuals and nongovernmental organizations are even trying to battle hate speech that has taken advantage of the vast space the internet provides (Henry). Now, while these efforts have been and are still being pushed for with good intentions, they have not been able to stand up to the strengths of the first amendment and also have negative implications on it. Thus, in this section, a brief account of some efforts to censor hate speech will be presented.
Prior to 1952, it appears that the American culture was willing to make some adjustments. During this period, targeted groups were pushing for equality by altering how society viewed them through the media. They felt that how they were being portrayed in advertisements and films was hindering their ‘social standings and political equality’ (historynetwork). Furthermore, some states even implemented ‘racial ridicule’ bans (historynetwork). However, due to efforts in the South to work against integration, some their efforts were hindered and hate was perpetuated. For the South began to use censorship as weapon to suppress. Then, in 1952, due free speech activist fighting to protect the rights of those who produced films in this era, the U.S. Supreme court ruled that restricting a film due to its content violated the first amendment (historynetwork).