Hate speech is any speech or form of expression that offends, threatens, or insults a group based on their race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, and other traits. And, as anyone familiar with the Westboro Baptist Church’s planned protest against the Alaska Native Heritage Center and the ongoing battle against ethnic team names and mascots is aware, hate speech is often times confused with free speech, especially by those seeking to exploit popular misconceptions about what free speech is as a cover for inciting hate and bigotry.
To be sure, people do have a right to freedom of speech, to think and express themselves, even when the person speaking says the very thing we hate most. That is a human right that deserves to be protected.
But what many free speech advocates would have us overlook is that freedom of speech is not the only human right out there. People have other rights that are, if not equally important, even more important than freedom of speech. The right to life and liberty, for example, often outweigh the right to free speech. Freedom of speech is not the be all, end all, of human rights.
Free speech proponents also tend to forget that it is not just the rights of those advocating free speech that must be respected. The rights of others must be respected as well.
That means we need to reconsider the positions of those advocating hatred and bigotry on claims of freedom of expression.
Fans of popular sports teams like the Cleveland Indians and the football team in Washington, for example, have become well known for their use of racial slurs like the R-word, for shouting obscenities and profanity, and for telling Native Americans to “Go back to the reservation.” Members of the Westboro Baptist Church have also become famous for their homophobic placards proclaiming that “God hates f*gs.” These are signs which, it appears, may soon be replaced with offensive signs proclaiming that “God hates Indians” or “God hates savages” if the group carries out its planned protest of the Alaska Native Heritage Center on June 1.
As if such proclamations weren’t disturbing enough, people often come to the defense of such groups, claiming their right to free speech.
But, while it is true that they, as American citizens, have a right to freedom of speech, it becomes a completely different ballgame when they infringe on the rights of others.
Numerous studies have shown that racial slurs and other hate filled commentaries can have a strong negative impact–that words, like sticks and stones, really do hurt. They have been shown to promote aggression and hostility and to incite hate. And such hate comes with a price, such as that witnessed recently when white supremacist Frazier Glenn Cross murdered three innocent people under the mistaken belief that they were Jews.
In the end equation it therefore becomes very clear that many of instances of people supposedly exercising their right to free speech are actually instances of hate speech in disguise.
And hate speech such as this can impact far more people than those in the immediate vicinity and those at whom it’s directed. Hate speech has the effect of perpetuating institutionalized discrimination. It also contributes to higher rates of unemployment, shortened lifespans, and poorer medical and mental health outcomes for racial, religious, and sexual minorities.
Hate speech, in short, has the cumulative effect of denying people their larger and more fundamental rights–their rights to life and liberty.
That’s why we need to support the efforts of those fighting against hate speech in all its forms, such as those fighting to change the Washington football team name, to change the racist logo of the Cleveland Indians, to combat the rising anti-Indian speech of the Westboro Baptist Church.
Because hate speech has no place in a multicultural society. We need to bring it to an end. Right here. Right now.
DaShanne Stokes is a Lakota doctoral candidate in sociology at the
University of Pittsburgh and author of The Unfinished Dream: A Discussion on Rights, Equality, and Inclusivity. Connect with him on Twitter at @DaShanneStokes.