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Seattle U. professor: Free speech, like democracy, is messy

Seattle University. (Jacob Rummel)

Last week, I went to an event at Seattle University titled “Is hate speech free speech?”

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The event featured a panel of three speakers, each from a different college on the university’s campus.

My colleague, Jason Rantz, told me the event was a waste of time; the answer to the question is “hate speech is protected speech” and the conversation needn’t go farther than that.

I’m really glad I ignored his advice, not because he’s wrong about hate speech, but because simplifying the conversation to that degree is a mistake.

Seattle University communication professor Caitlin Ring Carlson opened the panel and immediately launched into her own definition of hate speech.

“I’m defining hate speech as an expression that seeks to promote, spread or justify misogyny, racism, anti-semitism, religious bigotry, homophobia, or bigotry against the disabled,” Ring Carlson said.

She made it clear that under current U.S. law, hate speech is absolutely protected. With her next breath though, she noted we’re mostly alone in that.

“This is different than pretty much all other democracies,” Ring Carlson said. “Countries who are members of the European Union, Canada, South Africa; all of these folks have regulations, laws, against hate speech that punish it with either jail time or fines.”

Ring Carlson went on to lay out many of the arguments for and against regulating hate speech. Sure, keeping the marketplace of ideas open is important for democracy, but how do we weigh that against the silencing effect hate speech can have on women and people of color?

So what was Ring Carlson’s personal take on whether hate speech should be regulated? It might surprise you.

“I’m not someone that necessarily thinks we should amend the First Amendment,” she said. “I wouldn’t necessarily trust the government or other institutions to decide what counts as hate speech and what doesn’t.”

So what does she think would help?

“I think there are a lot of places where we could do better,” Ring Carlson said. “The Southern Poverty Law Center advocates for bystander intervention. If you see something, say something, whether that’s in person or online.”

Another member of the panel, Political Science Associate Professor Erik Olsen, had a similar take.

“Yes, the free exchange of ideas is important, and yes sometimes that means we engage in emotionally-charged and impassioned speech,” Olsen said. “But it’s not a free exchange if it goes along with marginalized groups being intimidated.”

I understand many will write off the comments of these professors as empty pontification spouted by Liberal academics, but I think that really misses the point. Free speech is a concept our country has been grappling with in its courts since it’s founding. We’ve been tweaking what it means, pushing boundaries and making alterations within the framework as necessary for hundreds of years, and there’s no reason to stop doing that now.

No one on the presumably (and in one case self-admitted) Liberal panel offered anything close to full-throated support to the prohibition of hate speech.

“I personally think that there are conceptual resources within the framework of American constitutional law, not in the form of European-style prohibition, but kind of in the messy middle,” Olsen said.

All they advocated for was listening to the people who historically, we haven’t, and making minor adjustments. Of 113 Supreme Court Justices, three have been people of color, four have been women, and three of those four are on the court right now.

Unsurprisingly, as we add more voices to the free speech debate, how we define the edges of free speech might shift slightly, and that’s OK. We’ll all survive.

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