Laws banning hate speech are wrong

From the Richmond County Journal/Civitas Media

Howard Dean is wrong, but he isn’t alone.

The former Vermont governor and onetime Democratic presidential candidate weighed in this week on the roiling controversy over conservative speakers being silenced at the University of California, Berkeley. Dean believes Berkeley should prevent the right-wing author from holding court on campus.

Why? Because Coulter spews hate speech, he contends, and hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment.

That’s objectively false, of course — there is no hate speech exception in American jurisprudence. In fact, the term “hate speech” has no accepted legal definition here, let alone any notable case law citations. It’s a buzzword wielded like a broadsword by those hell-bent on silencing others.

But Howard Dean is hardly the first prominent politician calling for curbs on free expression. The push to carve out a new exception in the First Amendment, or to pretend one already exists, is being led by progressives alarmed by what they deem racist, sexist, homophobic and otherwise prejudiced dialogue.

Dozens of self-appointed censors would argue that epithets, spoken or published, give rise to discrimination against minority groups. They find kindred spirits in Canada, France, Germany and the Netherlands, where the term “hate speech” does have legal significance and can result in government sanctions.

Harvard University Press published an entire book, New York University professor Jeremy Waldron’s “The Harm in Hate Speech,” in 2012. Wonks churn out touchy-feely think pieces on the subject for Alternet, Slate and other left-leaning outlets on a regular basis.

The arguments boil down to this: Speech that denigrates African-Americans, women, gays, Muslims, transgender people and other minority groups is aimed at hurting people who are historically disenfranchised in America, essentially kicking them while they’re down, and that’s beyond the pale of allowable discourse.

Yet in trying to shield them from scorn, liberals do a colossal disservice to the very people they purport to protect.

Advocates of a hate speech ban want government to declare certain groups off-limits from others’ expressions of prejudice. The only way to do that is to infantilize them, explains Alan Charles Kors, a co-founder of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

“What it says to these groups is, ‘We believe that you are too weak to live with freedom,’” Kors says. “‘You’re too weak to live with freedom of speech. You’re too weak to live with bearing witness in your speech and in your protests against things that you find offensive.’”

It’s paternalistic and arrogant to presume that minorities can’t tolerate offense, can’t speak up for themselves and can’t thrive and flourish under the First Amendment. That’s why hate speech laws are and must remain a non-starter in the United States.

The flawed ideology of prejudice and hate is better exposed and confronted in the American marketplace of ideas than swept under the rug, where it can fester in darkness.

“We are either all equally free,” Kors concludes, “or we are not free.”

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