‘Minorities suffer the most from hate-speech laws’

Nadine Strossen on why we must be free to hate.


Topics Free Speech USA

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Today, feminism, anti-racism and LGBT advocacy have sadly become synonymous with demands for Safe Spaces and the censorship of so-called hate speech. Yet Nadine Strossen, who served as president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for 18 years, is a staunch defender of both minority rights and unfettered free speech. This is the starting point for her latest book, Hate: Why We Should Resist It With Free Speech, Not Censorship.

Nadine will join Brendan O’Neill and Paul Coleman for the Spiked US panel discussion, ‘Should we be free to hate?’, at the New York Law School on 29 January 2019. Ahead of the event, spiked caught up with her to discuss the issues at stake.

spiked: Why is it so important to defend the right to use hate speech?

Nadine Strossen: Experience in the US and around the world throughout history shows that as well-intentioned as efforts to censor hateful speech might be, they are at best ineffective and, at worst, counterproductive. They certainly don’t stop hateful, discriminatory attitudes and behaviour. In many cases, they actually fuel the cause of the hatemongers.

From the Nazis in Weimar Germany up to the present day, the hatemongers have used the same strategy. The alt-right on college campuses, for example, deliberately seek to provoke attempts to censor them. This gets them media attention that they would not have had otherwise. They also gain sympathy because people see them as free-speech martyrs.

Throughout US history, warriors for racial justice and any other form of human rights have also been champions of free speech and have had to battle against censorship. That was true of the abolitionist movement, it was true of the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, it was true of the earlier movements for women’s rights and LGBT rights.

I think it is really tragic that, today, we actually have free speech equated with hate speech on a number of college campuses. At Harvard recently, a student group wanted to have a panel discussion on free speech, but had to take the words ‘free speech’ out of the event description. They knew that a certain administrator saw free-speech advocacy in itself as a form of hate speech. The panel wanted to explore how minority causes and rights are being undermined by censorship.

There is a predictable pattern now in which hate-speech codes and laws are introduced, purporting to protect minorities, but end up censoring them. In the US, campus hate-speech codes came into vogue in the late 1980s, early 1990s. The ACLU immediately challenged those codes in court. And in the process, we learned a lot about how they were enforced. Unsurprisingly there was a pattern of suppressing speech by minority student groups. At the University of Michigan, the first university we successfully challenged, a black student was punished for calling a white student ‘white trash’. Similarly, in the UK, after the introduction of the Race Relations Act in 1964, the first person to be punished for inciting racial hatred was black. He was accused of using hate speech against a police officer.

We see the same thing today on social media. Facebook, for example, has been the subject of complaints for years by a large coalition of civil-rights and civil-liberties organisations. Advocating Black Lives Matter or for Native Americans, who were protesting new pipelines through their reservations in the Dakotas, can be deemed hate speech.

spiked: One of the ACLU’s landmark free-speech cases was regarding Skokie, Illinois. Why was that case so important?

Strossen: Between 1972 and 1978 the ACLU came to the defence of free speech for a group of neo-Nazis, who wanted to protest in Skokie, Illinois. This was a town with a large population not only of Jewish people, but also Holocaust survivors.

The ACLU’s case was an easy win in the court of law, because there is such a time-honoured principle that government may never suppress speech simply because it deplores the viewpoints conveyed by it.

But it was a very challenging case in the court of public opinion. Even die-hard free-speech supporters asked, ‘How can the ACLU, which champions equality and opposes discrimination, do that?’. We even lost 15 per cent of our members as a result. This shows the disconnect between the First Amendment free-speech standard, that even abhorrent viewpoints have the right to be expressed, and the views of the wider public. Most people think ‘that’s a hateful idea and therefore you shouldn’t have the right to say it’.

But there is a real danger that we take for granted the free-speech protections that we have today. For most of US history, the First Amendment was largely unenforced. For example, the ACLU was founded in 1918 at a time when thousands of people were imprisoned for objecting to the US’s participation in the First World War.

It was only in the 1960s that the Supreme Court actually put teeth into the First Amendment. It was no coincidence that the greatest free-speech victories were fought and won in the context of the civil-rights movement. The strategy for conservatives at the time was censorship and the landmark victories for free speech were won on behalf of Martin Luther King and other civil-rights campaigners. At the time, their views were deemed to be hateful, dangerous and subversive.

It is really important to convey that even if the immediate beneficiaries of a free-speech principle happen to be against civil rights, you can’t take away their rights without taking them away from those arguing the opposite. It is no coincidence today that we have government officials saying that Black Lives Matter protests are ‘hate speech’. If you’re advocating on behalf of minority causes and law reform then it is especially important to defend free speech.

spiked: What about censorship that does not come from the government?

Strossen: The First Amendment, wonderful as it is, only protects against government censorship. It cannot protect against powerful forces in society or private companies. Peer pressure too can create a chilling effect on free speech.

We see examples all the time of a kind of ‘mobocracy’, where there is so much shaming and pressure against certain viewpoints that people feel unable to express themselves. According to surveys, a very large majority of students, faculty and administrators are walking on eggshells.

Sadly, the subjects people feel the most pressure to exercise self-censorship over are the very ones that require the most urgent discussion: race, gender or immigration, for instance. We are never going to advance toward understanding, diversity, inclusion or equality unless we can engage with each other over points of disagreement on these contentious issues.

Nadine Strossen was talking to Fraser Myers.

Nadine will be speaking, alongside Brendan O’Neill and Paul Coleman, at ‘Should we be free to hate?’, a Spiked US panel discussion in NYC on 29 January. Get your tickets here.

Should we be free to hate?

Should we be free to hate?

Spiked Event

Tuesday, January 29, 2019 – 6.30pm-8pm
New York Law School,
New York, NY

Brendan O'Neill, Nadine Strossen and Paul Coleman

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech USA


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