June 18, 2009

Confronting Hate Speech

The Fox News WatchLike many of you, I have been following the recent debate over the possible influence of right-wing hate speech on the recent acts of domestic terrorism. When we see people shooting up churches, murdering physicians, or attacking the Holocaust Museum, it is natural that we would seek motivating factors. When we find that the right-wing extremism and misinformation peddled by Fox “News,” Rush Limbaugh, and other popular personalities on the far right is a common thread uniting these and many other acts of domestic terrorism, it make sense that we would question the degree to which these elements are good for society. And yet, this is not a comfortable question for anyone who values free speech.

I'll be honest: I have been struggling with this topic for some time. I've made my decision, resolving the issue in my mind, but that does not mean I never have second thoughts or worry about the possible implications of my decision.

My conclusion is fairly simple and can be presented in two related parts. First, right-wing hate speech, even the most extreme forms one regularly hears on conservative talk radio, must remain Constitutionally protected speech. They have the right to keep questioning Obama’s birth certificate, calling physicians “baby killers,” ranting about the evils of liberalism. I don’t like it, but I am committed to protecting their right to do it. The law, as I understand it, allows them to say virtually anything that stops short of inciting specific acts of violence against specified targets. This is as it should be.

The second part of my conclusion requires a distinction between censorship (i.e., government efforts to legislatively restrict free speech) and corporate and social measures to reduce certain forms of hate speech through a variety of other means. You see, the second part of my conclusion is that those of us who are troubled by the apparent effects of right-wing hate speech have the right, perhaps even the obligation, to oppose it. While we must avoid censorship, we have at our disposal a range of other responses.

To understand what I’m getting at, consider Fox “News” for a moment. I oppose any governmental actions aimed at shutting them down, restricting what they are able to say, etc. The use of state police power to restrict speech is something I oppose, no matter how vile I may find such speech. However, I encourage those of us who worry about the toxic influence of Fox “News” on American society to pressure their corporate sponsors to pull their advertising. This is not censorship.

I also hope to see victims of right-wing hate explore the possibility of suing those who disseminate right-wing hate and misinformation. Again, we are talking about private citizens exercising their rights in civil court and not state police power.

Freedom of speech must protect even those forms of speech which we consider to be most detrimental to society. However, that does not mean that we must sit idly by. After all, we have the right to speak out too. There is much we can do without censoring views with which we disagree.