I began my debating career when I was in seventh grade. The resolution at the time was whether or not free speech was applicable to hate speech. In competition, like all debates, I had to argue both sides. I memorized the first amendment word by word. In my research I weighed the views and accusations of the musical lyrics of 2 Live Crew, Ozzy Osbourne, and NWA songs, as well as coverage of Nazi meetings at community centers and white supremacist parades permitted by local municipalities. Of course, there was also the argument by Oliver Wendell Holmes about limiting free speech if you were to scream “fire” in a crowded theater if there was not. But at the end of the debate season, my 12-year-old self had chosen a side. I would always side on the government allowing free speech, even if it were hate speech, if for no other reason that limiting speech based on whether it offended others or not would always be objective and that in order to preserve my rights, it had to be protected in the absolute. Decades later, I feel the same.
This week for one of my grad school classes, we were asked to listen to an NPR interview about the subject and share our opinions on the matter. The interview is with author, and former ACLU president, Nadine Strossen. She discusses her book, Hate: Why We Should Resist It With Free Speech, Not Censorship. I agree with her view, as shared in the title of the book. Easily explained, say what you want, so long as I can counter what you say or advocate against what you advocate for. Some of her insights and observations demonstrate the points I considered in middle school – depending on the time and societal context of society, your (my) expressed opinions and viewpoints could be considered offensive. Often on social media, I can sometimes feel the immediate backlash of my opinions from anything to loving iced-tea from Chick-Fil-A to advocating that a city park allow homeless to ice skate for free on the free skate days. Which touches on some of nuances of “hate” speech that have made way to today’s cancel culture consquence.
The two points I found most interesting in the interview are firstly, that the first amendment applies to the government prohibiting our free speech, and not a private company. It was a necessary, if unpleasant, reminder when reflecting on Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games in protest of police treatment of African Americans. It however makes sense to me in that context because I am in corporate communications and appreciate that many corporate policies prohibit employees, save those designated as company spokesman, from speaking about company matters publicly. The second point that stood out to me, is that there exists a hyper sensitivity to minority communities – sometimes oppressing that same group’s expression. Her example is the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s decision to deny the Asian band, “The Slants” name registration because it believed the name was disparaging to Asians, even though it had approved the same name registration numerous times to non-Asian businesses.
These two points demonstrate how society ultimately limits our speech, not by oppression of the government, but by the consequence of public pressure. In the first example, I agree with the spirit of Kaepernick’s protest and the earnest use of his NFL platform to bring attention to a cause he feels strongly about. However, I also understand that he is working, at his job, and that his personal expression on such policies that detract or impact the sports team in a negative way may be justifiable reasons to prohibit his expression. Which the NFL ultimately did, while the issue and protests continue throughout society at large. On the second point, I believe that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s decision to deny the Asian band “The Slants” name registration, was most likely from potential public pressure for authorizing it, regardless if the request was by Asian artists attempting to empower their use by taking ownership of the term. In these cases, and the most severe cases involving hate speech by Nazi’s and White nationalists or Christian or Islamic fundamentalist or misogynist incels, I stand by freedom of expression, because of the reality of consequence.
People that express themselves publicly are subject to employer and societal values, for better or worse. There are consequences to that, such as losing a job or customers. I point to Papa John’s founder John Schnatter’s exit for saying a racial slur on a conference call, and the numerous viral racists whose calls to police on people of color for doing nothing have been caught and shared on camera, as well as many participants at the Charlottesville white supremacists rally who lost their jobs after being identified. Say what you want – it’s your right – and be ready to live with the consequences!