Are the Left’s demands to ban so-called hate speech on college campuses a passing trend that conservatives can wait out? When shouting campus protesters hold signs that read, “We condemn freedom of speech that hurts other people’s feelings,” should conservatives take this seriously?
They should. The call to regulate offensive speech has deep intellectual roots on the Left. In fact, much evidence suggests that such regulation is necessary to bring about many of Left’s political and moral goals. Conservatives can better grasp where this trend is going by turning to some of its more articulate proponents.
Banning offensive speech is necessary to “protect the dignity and self-regard” of minority groups, write Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, professors of law at the University of Alabama and leading advocates for the banning of certain speech they disapprove of and describe as hate speech. (Shown in the image above this article is Ben Shapiro, whose recent appearances on college campuses have been met with protests.)
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Hate speech, Delgado and Stefancic claim, undermines an individual’s or a group’s self-respect.
While this may seem trivial, the famed liberal professor John Rawls explains why it’s not: “Our self-respect normally depends upon the respect of others. Unless we feel that our endeavors are honored by them, it is difficult if not impossible for us to maintain the conviction that our ends are worth advancing.”
That is, each group can define its own reasons for its self-respect; but since it may be “impossible” for them to experience their self-respect without others’ approval, these others must be made to respect them as they would like to be respected.
Academics like Jeremy Waldron of New York University Law School suggest that the government should ensure that groups feel no “hostility” or “exclusion” caused by public speech or images that could undermine their sense of self-respect and dignity.
That’s the theory. But what qualifies as hate speech?
Advocates leave it rather broad and unclear. As Delgado and Stefancic write: “Hate speech, in combination with a panoply of media imagery, constructs a picture of minorities in the public mind. This picture or stereotype carries from era to era but is rarely positive, including traits such as happy and carefree, lascivious, criminal, devious, treacherous, untrustworthy, immoral, and of lower intelligence.”
One is left to wonder whether anything short of praising groups would be tolerable.
In Europe, Americans can see their possible future, should these advocates succeed. As observers have chronicled, Europeans now face fines or even jail time for publicly stating things deemed sexist, racist, or homophobic. Under these standards, in nations like Sweden, for instance, it is unclear for how long citizens will be able to criticize immigration polices of which they do not approve.
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Soraya Post, a member of the European Parliament for Sweden’s Feminism Initiative, recently argued for banning “organizations that spread hate and advocate fascism, Nazism, and racism.” She implies that the Sweden Democrats, a socially conservative, national political party which thinks that Sweden should limit its immigration, is such an organization, even though it holds 49 of 349 seats in the Swedish Parliament.
For the American founders, among the highest purposes of the freedom of speech is republican self-rule. Self-government presumes the freedom to speak one’s mind completely in matters related to the common good, which is why the Speech and Debate Clause (Article 1, Section 6) of the Constitution gives nearly complete freedom to representatives to speak in Congress without fear of prosecution.
As former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court James Wilson and founding father explained: “In order to enable and encourage a representative of the public to discharge his public trust with firmness and success, it is indispensably necessary, that he should enjoy the fullest liberty of speech, and that he should be protected from the resentment of every one, however powerful, to whom the exercise of that liberty may occasion offense.”
If permissible public speech means respecting others as they would like to respect themselves, certain political issues concerning the common good can no longer be tolerated. The European example suggests that, should the regulation of speech come to America, public discussions of illegal immigration, to name just one example, may be off the table — regardless of its consequences to the nation.
“Coming to grips with hate speech does pose serious problems for a society committed both to equality and to individual freedom and autonomy.”
Deglato and Stefancic spend an entire book arguing that hate speech regulation is necessary to achieving equality understood as equal self-respect. At the end of their book, like Alexis de Tocqueville, they voice doubt whether political liberty and equality coexist: “Coming to grips with hate speech does pose serious problems for a society committed both to equality and to individual freedom and autonomy.”
Unlike Tocqueville, however, they seem to believe that the highest human good is equality, no matter what may be the sacrifices on its altar.
Arthur Milikh is research fellow and associate director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at The Heritage Foundation.
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