“Free Speech & the Menace of Hysteria”

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I recently returned from a conference where one of the panels I spoke on concerned “hate speech” and the other addressed related topics. The audience skewed heavily libertarian, but the conversations sparked by the panels still seemed fairly productive. However, one reaction I received was the objection that I was “scaring womnen away from the Internet” with my documented accounts of cyberattacks and online (and offline) stalkers. In figuring how to formulate a response to that, I was happy to see that the brilliant law prof Jeremy Waldron has a book review forthcoming in the NY Review of Books that addresses hate speech concerns, as follows:

Lewis’s settled position, I think, is that we do better to swallow hard and tolerate “the thought that we hate” than open ourselves to the dangers of state regulation. I am not convinced. The case is certainly not clear on either side, and Lewis acknowledges that. But it is worth remembering a couple of final points.

First, the issue is not thought that we hate, as though defenders of hate speech laws want to get inside people’s minds. The issue is publication and the harm done to individuals and groups through the disfiguring of our social environment by visible, public, and semi-permanent announcements to the effect that in the opinion of one group in the community, perhaps the majority, members of another group are not worthy of equal citizenship….

Secondly, the issue is not just our learning to tolerate thought that we hate….The harm that expressions of racial hatred do is harm in the first instance to the groups who are denounced or bestialized in pamphlets, billboards, talk radio, and blogs. It is not harm–if I can put it bluntly–to the white liberals who find the racist invective distasteful….The question is about the direct targets of the abuse. Can their lives be led, can their children be brought up, can their hopes be maintained and their worst fears dispelled, in a social environment polluted by these materials? Those are the concerns that need to be answered when we defend the use of the First Amendment to strike down laws prohibiting the publication of racial hatred.

I look forward to reading the entire essay when it is available to me. Via Brian Leiter, who has additional commentary.

–Ann Bartow

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2 Responses to “Free Speech & the Menace of Hysteria”

  1. bob coley jr says:

    It seems many interpret *free speech* to include enforced visability. Private interests the right not to diseminate. It would appear that public spaces are being used not in the cause of free speech, as this would entail ASKING if someone wanted to engage the protected speech, but rather to enforce the viewing or hearing without regard to someone elses right to refuse. (read Ben Franklin’s essays on free speech) Granting power to a government is no more prone to abuse than is granting a right to an individual. Both need constant scrutiny. I would imagine the perfection of CHECKS AND BALANCES is edvident in all areas of human endeaver, government, public, or private. It is only in government and in public that these checks can realisticly be fostered by the intervention of those harmed. Thus the debate is not what is free speech, but where and how this right is to be practiced.

  2. bob coley jr says:

    private interests HAVE the right not to diseminate

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