A note from the editor:
Picture this: it’s 1977. You’re a 56-year-old Auschwitz survivor who immigrated to America with your family eight years ago. You chose to settle down in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Illinois, where about 50% of your neighbors are Jewish (and many are also Holocaust survivors or directly related to Holocaust victims / survivors). You love Skokie. You live a quiet, peaceful life, and you feel safe from the hatred and anti-Semitism you experienced in your home country.
Then, one day, you discover that a neo-Nazi group is planning to hold a rally in your small town. What do you do?
This was the real-life dilemma facing the residents of Skokie in 1977. The townspeople quickly filed – and won – a court injunction to prevent the Nazi parade from happening, arguing that the demonstration would spark violence and assault the sensibilities of the town’s residents. But the neo-Nazis asked the ACLU to take on the case and represent them. The organization agreed, arguing that the neo-Nazis had a right to free speech and to peaceful assembly.
The courts ultimately decided in favor of the neo-Nazi group, but it was a costly win for the ACLU: about 30,000 people canceled their memberships.
Fast forward to today, and we’re still grappling with many of the same questions that were at the heart of the Skokie case: Should hate speech be illegal? Do we have the right to be protected from opinions/ideas that offend us? Or should we defend people's right to free speech, even if we vehemently disagree with the speech itself?
Let’s dive in:
KKK members at the Charlottesville, Virginia, protests in 2017 (Source: WKRN)
A NAMBLA press conference in 1982. (Source: VICE)
An example of a trigger warning (Source: ARPA Canada)
What are the ethical limits to free speech?
As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts (I mean, why else would we have a comments section).
Several times a week, we ask our Instagram community to share their thoughts on hypothetical scenarios, weird/wild questions, would-you-rathers, etc. etc. So, naturally, we have some insight on their feelings around free speech. Take a look and see how you compare:
Q1: Can hate speech “infect” other people and make them hateful?
Q2: Which is more dangerous to our society: hate speech or the restriction of free speech?
Q3: Can the public effectively “police” hate speech through counter-speech, public shaming, and civil discourse? ... Or are legal restrictions on hate speech necessary?
Q4: What is legal is not always the same as what is ethical. For example, it is perfectly legal for a neo-Nazi to say that Jews should be exterminated, even though this opinion would be considered absolutely abhorrent by most people. Should we judge the legality of actions based on their morality?
Here's what some of our Instagram followers had to say about the topic of free speech:
“As someone outside of the U.S … I think looking in, it feels like Americans shout about their rights so loudly, they forget what they really mean.”
“... I think we as a culture need to redefine what ‘safety’ is and what free is. Safety doesn’t mean never being challenged, it means being free to live with all dignity, rights and respect a human being deserves. Being free doesn’t mean doing whatever the heck you want, it means having the choice to do as you ought. People should be free to speak but it’s not freedom if it actually harms others. People should feel safe but this means spaces that respect them, which still leaves room for people being challenged.”
“For me it hinges on: Can we effectively fight the underlying causes of hate speech (intolerance and systemic power structures) while hate speech is suppressed? If so, ban away. If we need to locate the problem to fight it, then maybe, though it is awful, we need to permit it”
“We are currently suffering the consequences of taking the easy way out – erasure of the ‘controversial’ narrative. A shameful silence doesn’t equate growth nor does it heal what’s broken. ...There’s a time and place for it, but we need to be more willing to talk about things that make us uncomfortable, with people we don’t see eye to eye with.”
“I can tell you from my experience in the classroom that kids/young adults will only give voice to thoughts that are acceptable in a particular setting. So while restricting racist speech might not make less racists, it does, in my experience, lead to less racist comments and actions. It’s a peer pressure thing.”
“In the world of social media, the difference now is that most people have unprecedented reach. So for me, we should have freedom of speech but not freedom of reach.”