Thursday, September 1, 2011

Hate Speech is Still Free Speech - And an Opportunity to Teach

EDITOR'S NOTE: This post is partially a response to a piece on regarding the Confederate Flag and its presence at a community event - The Sweetcorn Festival - in Urbana, Ill. You can find the original piece here.

I appreciate individuals taking to an issue such as racism and showing it for what it is: Unnecessary in the current society we live in.

However, there always seems to be an argument regarding this issue as something that is either black or white in nature – with no room for gray. I’ve always been of the opinion that, regrettably, this is not the case in issues dealing with racism or hate. While the opinion of whether or not it should be accepted is clearly black and white as to “absolutely,” versus “absolutely not,” the topic of interpreting intent and rights is much less simple and therefore (in my own opinion) falls into a gray area.

Unfortunately, what the writer doesn’t understand is that hate speech IS something that is protected under the first amendment (our right to free speech), save for instances of Obscenity, defamation or "fighting words" (words/statements/etc that are meant to incite violence).

In fact, historically, there are several instances in which hate speech has been upheld by the United States Supreme Court under the protection of the first amendment itself. Such cases include Terminiello v. Chicago(1949), Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), National Socialist Party v. Skokie (1977), R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul (1992), Virginia v. Black (2003) and Snyder v. Phelps (2011).

While I am in no way supportive of racism or discrimination, I AM in full support of freedom of speech. Without it, this very piece would not exist. Though abrasive, anything that prohibits hate speech is unconstitutional. So the vendor - had he/she been turned away - would have had every right to question why.

It is a different circumstance entirely if standards set by the Urbana Business Association expressly prohibit the display of such symbols, which I suspect will become the case in the future (that is, if individuals who are serious about change decide to act instead of taking the typical American perspective of “someone else will do it”).

I don't disagree with the plight of the author. Meaning in symbols can be very different based upon your perspective (race, religion, etc) and your understanding of what the flag actually represents, which is why I believe there is a lot to say about education regarding what the confederate flag means. Many people merely associate the confederate flag with slavery. Others simply associate it with southern pride. Unfortunately, many of these same individuals have no idea what kind of meaning it actually holds - in both historical and social context - and I think that's where many problems start. Many people know exactly what the flag represents as well, but those individuals are either interested in the history of the period or interested in causing problems.

I do encourage people to try and change standards when it comes to things like this, though. Simply saying "someone needs to do something about that," isn't going to cut it, so if you see something that you believe detracts from the perceived values of a community, let your voice be heard about the issue (another benefit of our freedom of speech). That's not to say you will be successful at first, given that issues that promote change affecting freedom of speech and expression often walk a slippery slope (one change sets a precedent and freedom of speech is something that should be changed with the greatest of care and only if ABSOLUTELY necessary).

As for me, I wouldn't have let such a display ruin my time, simply because allowing it to do so gives it power, and giving it power is not something we should be doing as a people. The moment something makes us uncomfortable is the moment we give it the power to do so. The moment we see the need for change and focus on our goal for implementing that change is the moment we decide to take that power away.

Also, we should educate our children on hate and why it exists, not shield them from it in hopes that they won’t come in contact with it. Not so they can take part in it, but so they can be aware of it and strive to rise and be above it and what it stands for/does to our fellow citizens. Trying to hide the problem will not make it go away and – in my opinion – hinders our children from having the tools necessary to deal with it should they be confronted with it. My son needs to UNDERSTAND racism and discrimination and what it is so he can therefore understand why we fight against it and why we should. Trying to hide my son from the more sinister aspects of our world will not help him understand. Only making the effort for him to understand will help him understand.

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