MAXWELL:  Freedom to speak, even with hatred

1/7/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


As a graduate student at the University of Florida in the 1980s, I, along with dozens of other blacks, homosexuals and members of other minority groups, was the target of hate speech.

My most dangerous encounter occurred one afternoon when five skinheads approached me as I studied outside the journalism library. The smallest member gave me a handbill that read: “Niggers Off Campus.” Then he said, “That means you, nigger.” I did not get my face smashed because I kept my mouth shut.

Because I wrote a column for the Gainesville Sun, many black students asked me to join their effort to ban racist speech on campus. I refused, explaining that racist speech is protected by the First Amendment.

A few weeks ago, a black former classmate from those University of Florida days telephoned and insisted that I read The Price We Pay: The Case Against Racist Speech, Hate Propaganda and Pornography. Edited by Laura J. Lederer and Richard Delgado, both university law professors, the book is a collection of more than 40 essays.

Claiming that their position is grounded in democratic principles, the authors argue brilliantly, albeit erroneously, for censoring hate and racist speech and pornography as a proper way to guarantee free speech. Doubtful of the real value of free speech, the essayists argue that, although America prides itself on being a nation where all citizens are free to express themselves, the marketplace of ideas is not a place of equality.

Instead, it is a hot house of arbitrary selection, where the wealthy and the powerful _ and bullies _ determine whose speech rates serious consideration. In effect, the writers contend that speech per se has restricted value. If their view is correct, then the historically disenfranchised, such as African-Americans, women and homosexuals, are further subordinated by hate speech and pornography.

While the nation’s laws protect speech and pornography, these same laws are blind to the reality that those who suffer most from hate and smut come mostly from marginalized socioeconomic groups, who are easily silenced.

The editors maintain that hate speech “harms the individual who is the target of the hate speech and it perpetuates negative stereotypes, promotes discrimination, and maintains whole groups of people as second-class citizens, hampering their participation in our democracy.”

Offensive speech and pornography curtail participation in democracy because their purpose is the subjugation of one people by another. Lederer and Delgado explain, for example, that “catcalls, whistles, leers, and the proliferation of violent and degrading pornography all contribute to the subordination of women by making them fearful and by inviting others to think of them as targets.” In the same way, racial slurs and epithets stymie black people’s development by creating an atmosphere of fear, intimidation, harassment and discrimination.

“Physical acts . . . are the most noticeable forms of assault and receive the harshest sanctions from the courts, but verbal and symbolic acts can also be assaults and may be more insidious,” the editors write. “Most physical wounds can heal, but psychological wounds are often carried for life.”

By tolerating intolerable speech and negative portrayals of fellow citizens, Americans rob selected groups of freedom of expression. If the speech of some groups takes away the rights of others, we can correct this inequity by censoring speech that denigrates individuals or groups because of who they are. Censorship, therefore, becomes a legitimate, democratic means of cultivating free speech.

A seductive argument for blacks, anti-pornography feminists and politically correct academics, for sure. But it is a tar pit.

I agree that free speech in general is relative, one person’s free speech being another’s expression of homophobia or misogyny. And I know that many bigots and scoundrels use free speech to conceal their rotten motives. Even so, I worry when speech codes emerge on university campuses, when government attempts to regulate the Internet, when women join hands with Christian zealots and government in trying to ban movies, TV programs, magazines and books.

If “faggot,” “nigger,” “spic” and “kike” are deemed out of bounds today, which words will be so tomorrow? If authorities make the artwork of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano taboo today, will the possession of Playboy, Penthouse, Playgirl and nude images on the Internet automatically land offenders in jail tomorrow?

After reading The Price We Pay, I telephoned my former classmate and told him that the book had not caused me to change my mind. Instead, it makes me realize anew that Thomas Jefferson was right when he said: “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

Unfortunately, the marketplace of ideas often is a swamp where “sticks and stones can break your bones” and names, indeed, will hurt you. Yes, the very concept of free speech may be an elegant lie. But for the sake of liberty, Americans must continue to tolerate offensive speech and pornography.

The alternative _ speech codes, federal regulations and special courts _ is too high a price to pay. The day when a skinhead on a university campus loses the right to call me a “nigger” is the day when I, too, lose my freedom.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.