Freedom of Speech: A Double-Edged Sword

Written by: Marie C.


The Price of the First Amendment

This summer seems to have been rife with shootings, from the daily reports of violence in the city to the horrific mass murders at the Colorado premiere of The Dark Knight Rises and the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin. What separates the Wisconsin massacre from the others is that this event could have been racially motivated, opening up the discussion of our First Amendment right to freedom of speech.


In the days since this shooting, President Obama said, “These kinds of terrible and tragic events are happening with too much regularity for us not to do some soul-searching and examine additional ways that we can prevent such violence.” (CNN)

There have been numerous reports about Wade Michael Page’s heavy involvement in white supremacist organizations such as the Hammerskin Nation, the Ku Klux Klan, and hatecore bands. These associations give people like Page an outlet to express their racial, religious, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnic hatred and, according to the United States Constitution, they are perfectly within their rights.

Page was an active member of the hatecore movement for the past ten years, frequently posting on online forums and conducting interviews for his bands: End Apathy, Definite Hate, and the Blue Eyed Devils. Although the white supremacy movement has experienced an era of decline, decentralization, and disorganization since the election of President Obama in 2008, the popularity of this music continues to surge. In fact, white power organizations such as the National Alliance and the Hammerskin Nation use hatecore festivals as opportunities to recruit impressionable listeners to join and raise money for their cause. Joe Heim of The Washington Post interviewed Byron Calvert, a white power music producer for his article; he explained that the music appeals to its listeners because “they are tired of multiculturalism being shoved down their throats. They’re tired of the forced guilt trip about slavery.”

Since Page was such a presence on white-power forums and other social media outlets, we are able to gather a sense of some of his political and social ideals. BBC News reported that Page described his lyrics as “vary[ing] from sociological issues, religion, and how the value of human life has been degraded by being submissive to tyranny and hypocrisy that we are subjugated to”. LA Times reporter Kim Murphy shows that in another interview that was posted on End Apathy’s record label’s website, Page admitted to founding his band in an effort to discern

“what it would take to actually accomplish positive results in a society and what is holding us back. A lot of what I realized at the time was that if we could figure out how to end people’s apathetic ways, it would be the start towards moving forward. Of course after that it requires discipline, strict discipline, to stay the course in our sick society.”

Joe Heim of The Washington Post rightfully informs his readers that “such music is well within the tradition of protected free speech in America.” Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA, told Heim that it’s “true whether it is extremist Islam or pro-anarchist literature or the communist manifesto or extremist animal rights groups. And it’s true for extremist racists as well.” Eduardo Bertoni and Julio Rivera Jr., contributors to The Content and Context of Hate Speech, outlined Article 13 of the 1969 American Convention on Human Rights on page 502 that freedom of speech is perfectly legal until:

“Any propaganda for war and any advocacy of national, racial, religious hatred that constitute incitements to lawless violence or to any other similar illegal action against any person or group of persons on any grounds including those of race, color, religion, language, or national origin shall be considered as offenses punishable by law.”

Could the regulation and monitoring of such online content and song lyrics as Page produced have prevented the shooting?

Another contributor to The Content and Context of Hate Speech, Floyd Abrams, stated that “banning or punishing ‘bad’ speech leads inexorably to the empowering of governments to ban speech that others may think of as good, that censorship of speech leads to more censorship.” (125) Therefore, because we live in a censor-free society, Jeremy Waldron posits that “even the most hateful message has to be allowed to make its presence felt in the maelstrom of messages that populate the marketplace of ideas” (331) for the very reason that what is ‘bad’ and  ‘hateful’ to some is not to others.

While Ronald Dworkin agrees that freedom of speech is a delicate subject, on page 342, he had a fundamental difference with Waldron’s thesis that all ideas should be validated because

“vituperative hate speech also denies some citizens—its targets—the equal concern and respect they are entitled to have from other citizens. So balancing is necessary: censorship of the worst forms of hate speech, at least, is justified on balance because the damage such speech does to the respect owed its targets outweighs the damage done to racists by compromising their democratic rights.”

Yared Legesse Megenistu furthers this point on page 359: “Freedom of speech must be balanced against another central constitutional value—equality. No right, including freedom of speech, is absolute; thus, it is inadequate simply to assert that freedom of speech always prevails over equality claims when the two cannot coexist.”

Upon hearing of August 5th’s horrific events, we contacted some of the contributors of The Content and Context of Hate Speech in order to gauge their reactions and determine whether or not their views on censorship and regulation have changed. Bhikhu Parekh said that “The tragic events at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin and others like it show the power of hatred and ill will, which flourish unless the utterances that feed them are countered by law. Free speech can never be absolute and needs to be balanced against the requirements of mutual respect and social harmony.” Michel Rosenfeld stated that “the recent tragedy in Wisconsin sadly illustrates the perils of combing too much speech and too little comprehension in an age of intolerance.” Perhaps Theodore M. Shaw put it best:

“Some may think at moments like this that we can stop violence motivated by bigotry and hatred by banning speech and making illegal the expression of ugly ideas. But the sad truth is that we can never completely inoculate ourselves from the deeds of sick-minded individuals or groups who do violence in the cause of hatred.

[…] Our governments must protect their people from violence and hate crimes. We, the people, and the governments that represent us, must make clear that racial, religious, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, national, and other forms of bigotry fall beyond the boundaries of acceptability. The words and deeds of those who purvey it must be delegitimized. Those who perpetrate violence in the cause of hatred must be punished.”

There is a lot of uncertainty in the debate over freedom of speech, but one thing is clear: all citizens of the United States are entitled to their beliefs, ideals, and individual ways of life, but the question is, at what cost to their fellow man’s dignity, respect, and equality?

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About the Author: Marie C.

Marie is a library marketing associate in Cambridge's New York office. Follow her @cambridgelib....

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