Last week, conservative speaker Ann Coulter met her match at the University of Berkeley in California. She was supposed to speak there last week, but because the University could neither provide security nor a venue, she was unable to speak there. Coulter's controversial statements are nothing new in American conservatism. Some on the Left view Coulter's speech as hate speech. Upon hearing about the speech cancellation, former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean went as far as saying that Berkeley was right because "hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment." Fortunately, not all of those on the Left agree. Robert Reich and the ACLU came to her defense. Why is this significant? Why should we care about protecting speech we deem to be "hateful?"
First, let's define hate speech. Hate speech is commonly perceived as speech that offends, threatens, or insults groups, usually those considered to be minorities or disenfranchised. Coulter has made comments about Jews, Mexicans, African-Americans, and immigrants. With such a broad definition, anything she has said over the years could be considered as hate speech. The problem with that, though, is that anything we find disagreeable could be construed as hate speech. This level of subjectivity makes it all to easy to silence speech that is out of the norm, that is unpopular, or is off-putting, even if it is in the name of promoting tolerance and inclusivity.
Now for the legal argument. As Politifact pointed out in its response to Dean's comments, the Constitution most certainly does protect hate speech, not to mention that there is not even a legal definition of hate speech. The First Amendment explicitly states that there is to be no abridgment of the the freedom of speech. The Supreme Court has upheld the First Amendment and favored hate speech, including Ku Klux Klan members, depicting animal cruelty, flag burning, and the Westboro Baptist Church's despicable protest of military funerals. We can talk about America's imperfections, but it has historically done a fine job at protecting the freedom of speech. More to the point, it defends hate speech up to the point where it crosses the line of targeted harassment or where hateful speech turns into hateful action.
There are a number of arguments to defend hate speech, but why do I ultimately defend it? I find the speech of racists and bigots to be offensive, to be sure. I believe it has no place in civil society. At the same time, that is why we should allow everyone the ability to speak their mind. At that point, I know who the racists, bigots, anti-Semites, and homophobes are. At that point, I can use my freedom of speech in turn not only to express my moral outrage, but also to speak out and convince others that they are wrong (which is not difficult, all things considered). I would rather have their views out to be discredited than festering in an underground market so that humanity can make progress.
The flip side is that the ability to offend can lead to progress. Take gay rights as an example. Speech advocating for gay rights had to offend many individuals, most notably those on the Religious Right. At least in the United States, the gay rights movement didn't win by silencing preachers who have a problem with homosexuals. It was done by gay people being brave enough to come out and tell their story. It was done by those who knew someone who was gay, and realizing that gay people are people, just like everyone else. Changing minds and hearts. That's how it was done, and it was in no small part due to the freedom of speech. Allowing for all views to be expressed, whether popular or not, is how we make progress.
These points are all the more important to remember when considering that freedom of speech is indivisible. The same hypothetical hate speech laws that could be used against racists or bigots could also be turned on civil rights activists and LGBT individuals. Restricting one group's freedom of speech risks the freedom of speech for all. Freedom and tolerance come hand in hand, and are two sides of the same coin. For those who love freedom and the ability to dissent to enhance the marketplace of ideas, a trend towards abusing power for purposes of censorship should worry anyone who has thoughts, beliefs, or viewpoints.