Free Speech Lacks Dignity and Inclusivity – We Need to Fix That

The Seattle Police Department reported that during the second half of 2017 alone, bias-based hate crimes increased by 88 percent compared to the amount in the second half of 2016. There was a total of 240 criminal and non-criminal bias based incidents that were reported to the SPD during this time period.

For some First Amendment absolutists, they argue that the First Amendment should protect all speech because they believe that hate speech acts as a safety valve. They suggest that when folks can express their views through speech, it decreases the amount of hate crimes. For both the city of Seattle and Seattle University, the statistics bolster the argument that hate speech is actually a precursor to violence — especially on our campus.

Seattle U Public Safety reported there were only two cases of assault identified with criminal bias between 2014 and 2015. However, a surge of hate crimes occurred in 2016 with 17 incidents on campus, including student reports of swastikas being written on their whiteboards within the dorms.
As hate crimes have increased over the past five years, hate speech should be regulated in the United States of America. Hate speech should not be protected by the First Amendment because it denies all Americans of their right to liberty promised by the Fourteenth Amendment, and prevents all Americans from becoming involved with the Democratic process. Further, the United States should adopt a free speech clause that accounts for intersectionality in expressing ideas, and reserves the right to human dignity by limiting hate speech.

Those who argue for unregulated free speech say that a marketplace of ideas is necessary for a freely functioning democracy. The marketplace of ideas accounts for all ideas to have the opportunity to enter the public domain, where they will be protected by the First Amendment.

However, the marketplace of ideas does not account for an unequal society where some members have more privilege in getting to speak their thoughts, as well as to be taken seriously by the rest of society. In other words, the marketplace of ideas is inherently not intersectional, and inhibits someone’s ability to speak and be heard due to factors such as their race, gender, sexuality, or amount of wealth.

If these folks get to speak their truth, and are heard by others, they are often the most likely to face retribution for using their right to free speech and expression. Over time, this has a negative effect on one’s ability to participate in the democratic process — if someone is continuously targeted, they might feel more inclined to just not speak at all to avoid hate speech. This severely compromises the marketplace of ideas from accurately representing the United States as a whole, and only allows room for those with large amounts of privilege.

In addition to silencing minorities and women from the democratic process, hate speech is traumatic in and of itself, and can cause psychological damage to these folks. In an interview with Reuters, Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University Lisa Feldman Barrett said that “from the perspective of our brain cells, speech that bullies and torments is literally a form of violence.” Therefore, hate speech denies the right to liberty, protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, to each and every American.

While the United States protects the right to liberty, the right to human dignity is absent from both the United States Constitution and a landmark Supreme Court case. Many other Western countries cite the right to human dignity as a reason to ban hate speech. For example, Austria’s hate speech provision includes “hatred with intentional harming of human dignity.”

In addition to Austria, almost every other developed nation has laws that prohibit the use of hate speech, including most of the European Union, Germany, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and South Africa. However, they all aren’t perfect—South Africa punishes political dissent as hate speech, and often uses “reverse racism” as a way to punish Africans of color for expressing their opinion. It will be important for U.S. lawmakers or Supreme Court Justices to center intersectionality in the definition of hate speech, so that minorities do not suffer further under the law.

Interestingly enough, the United Nations (UN), of which the United States is a member, also has adopted a free speech clause. In 1965, the UN adopted the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, or the first international treaty that directly deals with hate speech. The treaty distinguished four different aspects of hate speech: the dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority, the dissemination of ideas based on racial hatred, the incitement to racial discrimination, and the incitement to acts of racially motivated violence.

In 2017, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, was still urging for countries adopt legislation expressly prohibiting the values promised in the 1965 UN treaty. While the United States signed the UN treaty over 50 years ago, the federal government nor any individual state in the U.S. has yet to adopt its own hate speech clause, or even define hate speech in a Supreme Court case.

Citizens of the United States of America are promised the rights of freedom of speech, expression, and liberty. This leaves a glaring opportunity for the the legislative or judicial branch of the U.S. to enact a free speech clause that accounts for intersectionality in expressing ideas, and reserves the right to human dignity by limiting hate speech.

Anna Kaplan, Investigative Editor