Free Speech vs. Hate Speech

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble…”
-From the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution

Last week, Terry Jones cancelled his plans to burn the Quran.  I’ve seen him praised for this decision, and I’ve seen him mocked for being too much of a coward to stand by his convictions.  My opinion is unchanged.  The man is an attention-hungry idiot.

As hateful and stupid as his plan was, he had the right to do it.  The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, and as a result of several flag-burning cases around 1990, the Supreme Court considers freedom of expression to be included in that right.

Even expressions of hate.

But free speech has limits.  Libel/slander, for example.  Or try shouting “Bomb!” in an airport, or advocating the assassination of the President.

I have no question that Jones’ plan to burn the Quran, and the resulting circus of publicity, would have incited violence.  But does that trump his right to freedom of expression?  In Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Supreme Court ruled:

Freedoms of speech and press do not permit a State to forbid advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.

I’m not a lawyer, but I believe the law is on Jones’ side.  As far as I know, he wasn’t advocating force or law violation, or inciting his followers to commit imminent lawless actions.

What about the laws regarding hate speech/crimes?  Jones’ actions are certainly hateful.  But in the U.S., I’ve found few legal restrictions on hate speech.  Hate crime laws add penalties to violent crimes targeted against victims based on race, religion, sexual orientation, perceived gender, disability, and other protected classes, but book burning, while abhorrent, is not considered a violent crime.

From everything I’ve read, I believe Jones has the legal right to hold a Quran burning.  Ethically … I struggle with whether or not hate speech should be protected under the First Amendment.

Ultimately, I believe it should be.

I don’t like defending his right to spread hate and lies.  And as a straight white male, I’m sheltered from much of the impact of hate speech, and I cringe to defend that speech while knowing many of my friends and loved ones don’t share my privileged protection … knowing I’m defending the rights of people who would belittle and attack them.

I feel dirty defending him.  I question why he should have that right.  I look at issues like gay marriage, where hate and lies continue to restrict the freedom of people I care about.  But I don’t trust myself to decide what people can and cannot say.  I don’t feel right criminalizing hate and ignorance.  Nor do I trust my government to do so.

It’s easy to defend the rights of those we agree with.  I’ll happily mock and argue with Jones and his ilk, and I’m thrilled at the public outpouring against him.  But I don’t think we should take away his right to express himself, no matter how distasteful that expression.

Discussion very much welcome.  As I said, I have struggled and continue to struggle with this one.