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SOAR research fellow in ‘Nevada Law Journal Forum’: Censoring extreme speech may backfire

By November 26, 2018

Editor’s Note: Gordon Danning is a research fellow with FIRE’s Speech, Outreach, Advocacy, and Research (SOAR) Project — an ambitious, three-year campaign aimed at inspiring greater understanding of and appreciation for individual rights. The SOAR Project is made possible by a $2.5 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation.


I am happy to announce that the Nevada Law Journal Forum has recently published my article, “Is the Cure Worse Than the Disease?: Censorship of Hate Speech May Well Increase Violence.”

Recent violent events have led to calls for the censorship of groups and individuals that are considered politically extreme. For example, social media companies and internet infrastructure providers — such as website hosts and payment processors — have, in several cases, responded to many such groups and individuals by refusing service.

My article argues that, as well-intentioned as those efforts may be, they are likely misguided. I found substantial research indicating that censorship and ostracism of hate group members is counterproductive. It tends to lead to more violence, not less. Specifically, that research indicates the following:

First, people who are content with their life do not commit acts of political violence. Rather, people commit political violence when they feel that they have been treated unjustly, or that society is organized in an unjust manner. That does not mean that they have actually been treated unjustly, but only that they feel that way. The person who recently sent bombs to well-known Democratic Party figures and critics of President Donald Trump would appear to be a prime example.

Second, individuals are particularly likely to feel aggrieved if they believe that rights or rules have been violated. Indeed, a recently published book from Cambridge University Press argues that almost all violence (even crime) is morally motivated in the sense that it is seen by the perpetrator as being morally permissible or even mandatory.

Third, the idea that every person has the right to speak her or his mind — an idea that has greater public support in the United States than in any other country on Earth — is clearly viewed as one of the basic principles of American society. If that principle is violated by silencing “hate group” members, even though the silencing is done from good motives, and even if it is done by private actors, who generally are not bound by the legal rights established by the Constitution, then by definition those hate group members will feel aggrieved. Hence, it should be expected that silencing and stigmatizing hate group members will add to those members’ grievances, potentially making violence more likely. Indeed, there is substantial scholarship indicating that censorship or stigmatization of extremist groups and their members tends to lead them to see violence “as the most rational means of political action open to them.”

Fourth and fifth, repression and ostracism of groups tends to drive out relative moderates, leaving only the most extreme members, who are more likely to use violence; at the same time, repression leads those remaining members to identify more strongly with their groups, thereby radicalizing them even further.

Sixth, censorship and ostracism of extremists plays into the hands of the leaders of extremist parties who use the perceived threat as a means of increasing solidarity and a sense of victimization among rank-and-file members, thereby once again radicalizing members still further.

Finally, censorship, stigmatization, and ostracism may even interfere with efforts to deradicalize extremists because, in order for deradicalization to be effective, it is essential for the individual to feel that he or she is being respected, even as his or her opinions and behaviors are challenged.

Hence, while putting up with reprehensible beliefs is deeply unpleasant, the alternative is likely worse. The best — or, perhaps, the “least bad” — solution to the problem posed by those who express odious opinions is not less respect for civil liberties and democracy, but more.

My article is fairly brief and can be read for free online, so if you’re interested in learning more about the research discussed here, check out the full text at the Nevada Law Journal Forum website.