The United States stands virtually alone among Western democracies in not prohibiting offensive speech. France, Germany, England: they all have criminal laws for speech deemed insulting to an identifiable group. Oh Canada! You too?
Thus far, the United States Supreme Court has routinely rejected the invariably vague laws criminalizing hate speech or offensive language because to do so cannot be squared with the free speech protections of the First Amendment. And rightly so.
But now there seems to be a movement to adopt European-style hate speech laws, and to require social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to police political speech.
Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean dismissed the notion that hate speech is protected under the First Amendment. And U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., recently chastised Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for refusing to censor false or misleading political ads.
Never mind that political ads are notoriously misleading, but misleading to whom? You think Zuckerberg and his crew have nothing better to do than “fact-check” political ads? To do so, Facebook would need a staff that was a hundred times larger the staff of The New Yorker magazine, which is the Rolls Royce of fact-checking publications.
And good luck coming up with a definition of “hate speech” that everyone can agree upon.
As Jonathan Turley, a noted legal scholar and professor of law at George Washington University, recently wrote in USA Today, limiting free speech will not accomplish what its backers hope to achieve.
“These European laws allow the government to declare what speech is true and what is false,” Turley wrote. “None of this, mind you, has put a dent in the ranks of actual fascists and haters. Neo-Nazis are holding huge rallies by adopting new symbols and coded words while Germany arrested a man on a train because he had a Hitler ring tone on his phone.”
Turley cited recent polling of German citizens where only 18% of Germans feel free to express their opinions in public. Just 17% feel free to opine on the Internet.
“That is the real success of hate speech laws,” Turley wrote. “These laws are so generally worded that no one can be sure that they are not committing a crime.”
Limiting hate speech and offensive language is a laudatory goal. But achieving that goal should be done by a civil society. Not by governmental fiat.