Thursday, June 12, 2008

Today's Required Reading: Is It Free Speech or is It Hate Speech?

Link to June 12 New York Times article, "American Exception: Unlike Others, U.S. Defends Freedom to Offend in Speech".

Maclean's is a Canadian national newsweekly that, like its U.S. counterparts Time and Newsweek, provides current events coverage. The magazine is now on trial for an article that some felt stirred up hatred against Muslins.

Quote: A couple of years ago, a Canadian magazine published an article ("The Future Belongs to Islam") arguing that the rise of Islam threatened Western values. The article’s tone was mocking and biting, but it said nothing that conservative magazines and blogs in the United States do not say every day without fear of legal reprisal.

The article cites the book Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment by Anthony Lewis, a former New York Times columnist. Mr. Lewis has called for a re-examination of the Supreme Court's only justification for making incitement a criminal offense: the likelihood of imminent violence. This term is glossed in the article as follows: "the words must be meant to and be likely to produce violence or lawlessness right away."

Not so fast, says Harvey A. Silverglate, a Cambridge Massachusetts civil liberties lawyer.

“When times are tough,” he said, “there seems to be a tendency to say there is too much freedom.”

“Free speech matters because it works,” Mr. Silverglate continued. Scrutiny and debate are more effective ways of combating hate speech than censorship, he said, and all the more so in the post-Sept. 11 era.

“The world didn’t suffer because too many people read ‘Mein Kampf,’ ” Mr. Silverglate said. “Sending Hitler on a speaking tour of the United States would have been quite a good idea.”

Mr. Silverglate seemed to be echoing the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., whose 1919 dissent in Abrams v. United States eventually formed the basis for modern First Amendment law.

I think it's safe to assume that Mr. Silverglate subscribes to the philosophy held by many librarians. A good library collection should have something to offend everyone.

After Mr. Silverglate's Hitler illustration, the following example is admittedly trivial.

Last week Fox News personality E. D. Hill blitheringly compared the fist bump to a "terrorist fist jab."

The appropriate reaction: ridicule.

The actual reaction: ridicule.

Call me a Pollyanna, but I've always felt that unwise and ill-formed ideas will always wilt under the glare of a strong and constant light. It was the philosophy I learned from my dad, a Lutheran minister and a lifelong Republican.

Related reading:
Link to Human Rights Watch World Report 2007, "New Twists on Old Offenses: Hate Speech and Blasphemy ".

No comments: