Topic 6: Speech not worth fighting for

Debate Question: The writer (in the Daily Pennsylvanian, a daily newspaper distributed at Penn) does not believe that racist speech deserve the protection of free speech. Is he right?

Source: Daily Pennsylvanian

Oliver Benn: Speech not worth fighting for
Guest Columnist
April 15, 2002

When someone threatens a group based on their race, ethnicity or religion, or attempts to instill fear in them, that person does not deserve to have their speech protected. In University President Judith Rodin's column of April 11, she cited many of the standard reasons why the University should not censor speech: freedom of expression is the only way to bring new ideas into the public forum; freedom for the speech we hate is the price we pay for living in a free society; prohibiting speech only forces it underground.

These arguments are not only used in discussions over campus hate speech, they are the ones most often cited by rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union when they represent the Ku Klux Klan in First Amendment cases. And over the course of the last century, American legal opinion has predominantly fallen on the side of absolutist free-speech advocates. Courts have ruled by the "content-neutrality" standard; in other words, that the government should not be able to decide what messages can or cannot be espoused. The only time speech can be curtailed is when it "incites imminent lawlessness."

In general, this is the correct method to adopt. Too much power in the government's hands could result in genuine political dissent being suppressed. Thoughts should be open to the "marketplace of ideas" so that they are all evaluated and society can progress. Some of those ideas might not be liked, but we tolerate them for the reasons described above.

However, sometimes these theories breaks down and, when it comes to racism, the permissibility of speech enters an entirely different level than that of other forms of controversial expression, such as pornography. This truth is easily illustrated.

When someone asserts that a minority group is inferior and doesn't have the same right to exist, that group will most likely feel very threatened. When the authorities permit such a message to be freely espoused, where then can the group turn for recourse?

In the recent incident at Penn, Arab students felt sufficiently threatened that they had to have security guards at the doors of their meeting. In Skokie, Ill., in 1978, where the Supreme Court infamously ruled that a neo-Nazi organization must be allowed to march through a village with a large Jewish population, including many Holocaust survivors, the potential escalation to violence was well illustrated. After the decisions of lower courts were upheld, the militant Jewish Defense League showed up in Skokie with ski masks, motorcycle helmets and large clubs, ready for the Nazis to arrive.

The message was clear -- if you can lawfully advocate the termination of our freedoms, we have to take whatever measures we can to protect ourselves.

It would be easy to suggest that when racists come along, those threatened should just ignore it and wait for it to go away. Unfortunately, doing so would betray the past and forget the evils of both American and world history. Millions have lost their lives as a result of groups being hated by one another on the irrational basis of religion, race or background. Blacks in the United States. Jews in Europe. The Tutsi people of Rwanda.

This last case is particularly poignant as three men currently on trial at the UN war crimes tribunal are news media executives, accused of aiding the genocide there through free speech. Radio Mille Collines became known as Radio Hate because its broadcasts helped create the sentiment that resulted in 800,000 deaths in 1994. The power of racist ideas is so dangerous that under the right set of circumstances it can elicit the worst of humanity. And for this reason, it is not worth defending.

When confronted with the realities of history and racism, it is difficult to believe in the ideals of unbridled free speech. Genuine political protest should always be protected as it is the safeguard of this country's freedom. But racist speech -- advocating a group's subordination or extinction based on race, ethnicity, religion or any other arbitrary determination -- is the expression of only ignorance. It is an ignorance, though, with such horrific potency that it should be proscribed.

President Rodin wrote in her column, "most importantly, we permit [the ideas] because doing so is the only way to change things." It seems strange that a university committed to diversity would concurrently permit one of its teaching assistants to champion the death of all Palestinians.

This mirrors the broader, historical, societal hypocrisy of allowing, in the name of freedom, one group to push for that same freedom being stripped from another.

Last modified: Wed Sep 13 14:57:24 EDT 2000