Is Limiting Hate Speech a Good Idea?

By on December 5, 2011

The Jewish Chronicle, a publication based out of Pittsburgh, had an interesting article last week about how various universities in Pittsburgh and elsewhere handle "hate speech." I put hate speech in quotes there not just because nobody agrees (or can possibly agree) on what exactly it means, but also because there’s no exception in American law that strips whatever "hate speech" is of the protection of the First Amendment.

That doesn’t mean that some people wouldn’t like to see that change, though, like the dean of a California law school quoted in the article:

… [A]dvocates of hate speech policies say they protect groups for whom "the verbal attack is a symptom of an oppressive history of discrimination and subjugation that plagues the harmed student and hinders his or her ability to compete fairly in the academic arena," wrote Gerald Uelman, dean of Santa Clara University School of Law and a fellow of the Center for Applied Ethics. "The resulting harm is clearly significant and, therefore, justifies limiting speech rights."

Dean Uelman is entitled to his opinion about what justifies limiting speech rights, of course (even if, according to him, not everyone should be entitled to his or her own opinion on other matters). But I think Dean Uelman might be forgetting one of the most important functions of freedom of speech: sometimes, it’s important to know what opinions the person next to you might hold. As FIRE co-founder and Chairman Harvey Silverglate said to me early on in my career at FIRE, "sometimes it’s important to know who the Nazis in the room are so that I know not to turn my back on them." In Dean Uelman’s world, we’ll be educating those who hate us to make sure they keep quiet about it in public. In such a world, hopefully, by the time we find out what the "Nazis in the room" are up to, it won’t be too late.