Free Speech & Hate Groups

Or: OK, I Lied—My Previous Post Wasn’t the Last I Had to Say on This Subject. Honestly, I Won’t Ever Run Out of Things to Say about This Issue.

It’s illuminating to peruse the history of judicial interpretations of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America. Time and time again, it’s noted that the goal of the freedom of expression is to enable and promote the free exchange of ideas.

The free exchange of ideas is the fundamental purpose of public libraries.

The freedom of expression requires us to engage with the presence of hate speech and the various expressions of hate groups in our communities. As we debate the proper approach to and place of hate in society—and more specifically within public libraries—we must at least acknowledge that hate groups don’t care about participating in the free exchange of ideas. If we believe we must allow hate groups and hate speech in libraries because we believe that we should provide access to all ideas, and a platform for all members of our community, it should matter to us that hate groups don’t care about any of that.

Hate groups have no desire to engage in discussion or debate. That’s not why they speak their hate.

They speak to cause harm.

Hate groups don’t exchange ideas. They don’t care about convincing anyone. (Beyond recruitment, that is. But hate groups target their recruitment efforts and limit them to closed environments. When hate groups speak publicly, it’s not with a goal to recruit.) With no intent to participate in the free exchange of ideas (and without an intent to recruit) we have to question to what extent public declarations of hateful ideology uphold the intent of the First Amendment. One of the explicit goals of hate groups is to deny the freedom of expression to entire groups of other people, to stop the free exchange of ideas.

Hate groups don’t want to win the debate—they want to disallow it entirely. As many experts have pointed out: hate speech is opposed to the freedom of speech.

For those who believe in upholding the freedom of expression, this is the fundamental contradiction we face.

To be fair, hate groups aren’t the only people who don’t have any interest in participating in the free exchange of ideas. Your right to speak your mind doesn’t require you to listen to anyone else.

But one of the defining characteristics of hate speech is that it wields speech as a weapon—it seeks to harm. Hate groups utilize hate speech in an organized, strategic, and systematic manner in order to maximize harm.

This intent to cause harm makes these expressions qualitatively different than most other acts of speech. We at least have to acknowledge this.

As we wrestle with the question of how to handle hate speech, we’re hobbled by the fact that there’s no consistent or legally binding definition of what hate speech is or what actually constitutes a hate group. The existing jurisprudence on these is contradictory.

It’s worth noting there have been successful legal challenges to hate speech, in which courts of law concluded hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment. The reasoning behind these judgements is instructive:

The purpose of the freedom of speech is to protect every individual’s right to voice their beliefs. Hate speech isn’t motivated by a desire to express a sincerely held belief. This isn’t to say hateful beliefs aren’t sincere but that’s not why hate groups speak their hate in public.

They speak to cause harm. Either the words themselves inflict emotional and psychological injury or they’re an incitement to violence. Doing injury and inciting violence is the goal of the act of speech.

The First Amendment doesn’t give anyone the right to cause harm to others. For this reason, based on the conviction that the purpose of hate speech is to cause harm and not primarily a desire for expression, some courts have ruled that hate speech can’t be protected under the First Amendment.

These rulings aren’t consistent and they’re not binding. But this reasoning exists within the body of American law and interpretation.

Hate groups aren’t attempting to participate in the free exchange of ideas—they’re attempting to cause harm. Hate speech isn’t primarily an expression of belief—it’s an attempt to cause harm.

We must acknowledge this as we wrestle with our commitment to uphold the freedom of speech and the free exchange of ideas.

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