With the rise of the “alt-right” and free speech rallies, the American people find themselves questioning the extent to which free speech can protect hate speech. While Neo-Nazis run the streets, spewing hateful remarks against minorities, as they did during their rally in Charlottesville, free speech is thrown around as a mechanism of protecting these views and actions.
But what is free speech? The first amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech.” The government cannot legally limit an individual’s right to express themselves and their views.
Legally, the “alt-right”, these Neo-Nazis, have the right to make bigoted remarks. It is cruel, it is reprehensible, but it is legal.
But just because something is legal, does not necessarily mean it is right. There have to be moral repercussions for acts of bigotry, even if there are not legal ones. The government may not be able to restrict their speech, but it is up to others to stand up against such bigotry.
Free speech is as much a value as it is a right. So even though the Constitution only limits the protection of free speech to government, most institutions feel obligated to uphold this value. It is commendable, that our society places such a big emphasis on the exchange of ideas.
But not all ideas are equal, and the idea of free speech as a value cannot be applied to those ideas equally, even if they are all protected by free speech as a legal right. Some ideas protected by free speech are harmful, like the ones that target minorities, ones espoused by the Neo-Nazi “alt-right movement.” And yet they are protected by institutions and people who have no legal obligation to protect these ideas.
In protecting the right to free speech, people sometimes go as far as to willingly offer a platform for hate speech. Schools invite figures like Milo Yiannopoulos and Charles Murray to speak despite their views that target students at those schools. No student wants to hear someone speak when that person has attacked their very identity. They certainly, and understandably, do not want that person engaging in an “exchange of ideas” that might cause others to target them in the same way.
Prohibiting such speech is a difficult issue, and a thin line to walk between rejecting bigotry and violating free speech. It is not possible to completely eradicate such lines of thinking, and to do so would be a flagrant violation of free speech. But that does not mean that schools and institutions have an obligation to offer them a platform, particularly when that platform offers them an opportunity to spread ideas that are harmful to students, faculty, and others.
And yes, in some ways it is important for them to have that freedom of speech, not only as a legal right, but because when they exercise that freedom of speech, society as a whole is aware of their ideas instead of letting them simmer just underneath the surface. Such ideas can be just as dangerous when they go unacknowledged because they manifest in hateful acts against minorities that in turn go unacknowledged. The problem is not addressed, and a solution is never implemented.
But we have to be able to find some balance between allowing free speech and rejecting hate speech. These hateful ideas exist and they will find a way to manifest even if we fight back against them. But that does not mean that we as a society need to make space for them to grow.
Moreover, if free speech is protected to this extent, then it needs to be applied to everyone, equally. Those who are prepared to defend the free speech of “alt-right” should be just as adamant in defending the free speech of those who kneel during the National Anthem, those who protest police brutality in the streets, those who petition our government for minority rights.
Protect free speech. But protect it for everyone. Do not allow minorities to be silenced while white men spread bigoted exercise on a platform made for them at the expense of those they target.