Monday, May 28, 2012

Hate Speech Laws?

Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens reviews Jeremy Waldron’s The Harm in Hate Speech in The New York Review of Books.  In a calm and reasonable discussion of a book on highly divisive topic, Justice Stevens identifies Waldron’s purpose as making a case that the United States should adopt laws regulating hate speech, as a number of other countries have.  Waldron apparently draws on ideas from the philosopher John Rawls to posit that hate speech laws can be part of creating a well-ordered society. Stevens concludes that “…In the end, although the book does not persuade me that it would be wise to outlaw the entire category of hate speech that Waldron describes, he elegantly and convincingly advocates that our leaders should not only avoid the use of hate speech themselves, but also condemn its use by others.
Having read the review, I should now read the book. I intend to try to cram it into my overstuffed schedule. I don’t think I need to read it, though, to be convinced that our leaders should avoid vicious and hateful statements. But that’s a moral judgment, not a legal one. I can refuse to vote for anyone who says anything I find objectionable or for anyone supports or fails to condemn expressions by others that do not meet with my approval. This is, however, entirely separate from the question of whether my disapproval or the disapproval of others should have the force  of law                                                                                                                                                                                
I think the arguments Waldron makes for hate speech laws, as summarized by Justice Stevens, should be taken arguments against those types of laws. I object precisely to the Rawlsian justification. Laws against murder or robbery define objective acts as illegal. But “hate speech” is defined in terms of the social order someone wants to use the laws to create. According to a key sentence in the review, “Waldron believes that we have overprotected speech that not only causes significant harm to the dignity of minority groups but also, more importantly, diminishes the public good of inclusiveness that is an essential attribute of our society.” Here, it seems clear that hate speech laws are not sanctions for objective violations, but political weapons to be wielded by partisans of social reform who manage to get control of the legal machinery.
Respect for the dignity of others, whether as individuals or as categories, is a wonderful moral tenet. Prosecuting people because they are seen as failing to conform to someone’s political program of “inclusiveness” cannot be reconciled with a free society.

No comments:

Post a Comment