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15.12.02

At The Corner Of Free Speech And Hate

The year Abe was born, I was attending a Midwest boarding school where I suffered overt anti-Semitism from some of my classmates. But I also suspected that the school itself was complicit. I felt unwelcome and inadequate. For years, I wondered whether I was just paranoid. Then, two decades after graduation, I was invited to return as a "distinguished" guest-lecturer. That was when I got a glimpse of my student file. There, on the outside jacket, was a Star of David and a tiny notation that suggested that perhaps in the future, local fathers might screen out such applicants.

The note didn't upset me as much as it brought a sense of relief that my suspicions were being confirmed. If only I and others of my generation had had the opportunity to confront the authors of such notes. If only they had spoken their objections and aired their biases publicly. Why in the world would we now, in the name of speech codes, want to drive them back into the safety of their secret lairs?

Speech codes threaten to take us back to the old days when prejudice was vented only in whispers between like minds. My own history has convinced me that a silenced bigot can do far more mischief than one who airs his hatred publicly.

Even the most reviled of hate symbols, the burning cross and the swastika, are just that -- emblems of unspeakable evil. But their sporadic resurfacing has produced not waves of terror but waves of public revulsion, not Kristallnachts and lynchings but community rallies against racism. Hate speech need not be a precursor to violence. On the contrary, it can defuse tensions that could turn explosive. Hate speech can discredit nascent movements that might otherwise draw strength from authoritarian efforts to snuff them out. Intimidation invites intimidation.


This is an excellent article on why the right to free speech ought to trump protection from offensive speech. It's an argument I've made before, and it's what makes me concerned that Justice Thomas seems to have convinced the Supreme Court to uphold anti-cross-burning laws.

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