Hate Speech in Libraries

There have been several reports over the last few weeks identifying a rise in incidents of hate speech, racist graffiti and slogans, and acts of violence toward members of various minority groups throughout the country. Several libraries have been targeted—books and buildings have been defaced with swastikas, racist, sexist, homo- and transphobic epithets, explicit threats of violence toward minority groups, etc.

Libraries are targets because we stand at the vanguard of promoting inclusion and diversity. We seek to empower the disempowered, to give voice and provide access to all individuals and groups within our community. We hold as a core value that no one be excluded from the tools and services we offer, that no one be silenced or impeded from equal participation in our community. Libraries function as a safe space for anyone who needs it.

Libraries pose a great threat to those who seek to exclude all those who are different from them.

Libraries hold a resolute belief in the freedom of speech and expression. This is fundamental to everything we do. How, then, are libraries supposed to handle incidents of hate speech?

Hate speech has long been a sticky challenge to the First Amendment. How can we claim to uphold the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech but then turn around and tell people, “You can’t say that”?

I’ve struggled with this for a long time. For a long time, I was unable to articulate a good answer. Moral outrage over hate speech is one thing, to speak out against those who speak hate is one thing—to exclude hate speech from First Amendment protections is something else.

Hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment and this is a legal distinction, not merely a moral one. This was a decision made by the U.S. judiciary. The judiciary interpreted the First Amendment and concluded that hate speech doesn’t fall under the umbrella of the Bill of Rights. So to get a better grip on this issue, I thought a good place to start would be to learn more about how and why that decision got made.

Assuming my research identified the correct explanation, and assuming I understand this explanation correctly, the legal determination of hate speech boils down to intention. It’s not just what a person says but why they say it.

Hate speech is intended to cause harm. Either because the words themselves hurt people to hear, or because the speaker believes their words will inspire violence.

And that’s key: the primary intention of hate speech is not to express a personal opinion, belief, or conviction. Because it’s not primarily an act of personal expression, it doesn’t fall under the protection of the freedom of speech. The Bill of Rights is intended to protect citizens from harm, while the goal of hate speech is to harm others.

The challenge is that intention is difficult to determine. If a hateful person speaks their mind in a sincere desire to voice their opinion, and with no intention to cause harm, their words would be protected under the freedom of speech as an act of personal expression but it will still sound like hate speech (and their words will still cause harm). People who speak to cause harm will insist they were just expressing their opinion and how do you prove otherwise?

It’s worth remembering that the First Amendment protects individuals’ right to freely express themselves without being prevented, punished, or censured by the government. It does not protect anyone from other individuals opposing you or speaking out against you. Speech is an action and we’re all responsible for the consequences of our actions. Words can do damage—the freedom of speech does not absolve anyone of responsibility for the consequences of what they say.

Libraries uphold the essential need for the freedom of speech and expression in our communities, we do so with the conviction that all people benefit from an open and ongoing conversation, full of a diversity of voices and points of view, and we believe that this conversation can strengthen our community. We uphold the right of all individuals to express themselves so that no individuals within our community will be excluded from it.

We do so on the principle that this freedom is necessary to make libraries safe for everyone who uses them.

Hate speech has no desire to engage in a conversation with anyone—it’s an exercise of power which seeks to dominate and silence other voices. Hate speech seeks to disrupt and exclude people from the community. It willfully impedes mutual understanding. It acts to violate the safety of safe spaces.

Hate speech seeks, above all else, to do harm.

Hate speech is not an act of personal expression.

Hate speech is an act of violence. That distinction matters.

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