Lawmakers should begin cracking down on hate speech
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In addition to condemning the horrific violence and tragic death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, it is important to understand the communicative elements surrounding white supremacists’ hate speech and begin the difficult conversations about how we might address this growing problem in new ways.

The reaction that “this isn’t America” is not accurate. We have over a century of white supremacist organizing in this country, and my research on how communities respond to such hate speech indicates a surge in public visibility of hate groups since the 2016 election. White supremacist rallies similar to the one in Charlottesville (and the counterprotests to them) have happened in communities across the country.

Why are we shocked? One answer lies in the power of language to shape our perceptions.

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White supremacists have done a good job of rebranding themselves as the “alt-right,” a seemingly innocuous political faction. Society accepted this label without questioning what it really meant, what it hid in plain sight. But after this weekend’s violence, we are finally seeing that these words matter. In fact, the Associated Press just released a statement claiming they will no longer use the term “alt-right” because it is a euphemism for racist discourse. The push from many people this week to reject this label and call out the alt-right for what they are — white supremacists, white nationalists, fascists — is a step in the right direction as we fight this hate in our communities.

 

Although recognizing this language manipulation is a step in the right direction, there is still work to do. What’s missing from these important conversations is a critique of our near-absolutist protection of hate speech in our justice system as seen in Supreme Court cases such as Whitney v. California and Snyder v. Phelps. We have placed the burden on communities to meet hate speech with more speech — to allow the marketplace of ideas to sort out the good from the bad without governmental intervention.

We, as citizens committed to free speech, have fought hate as we saw in Charlottesville time and time again in our own communities. I have witnessed similar circumstances in my own research over the past three years in Columbia, South Carolina, Stone Mountain, Georgia and in Philadelphia. And from what I’ve seen, most of the time, this works.

But what this citizen-centric approach fails to take into account is the United States’ history of violent racism, and the fact that this violence isn’t just a part of our past. Our nation’s laws need to catch up to our contemporary moment where hate groups are increasingly armed, violent, and unapologetic. Unbridled hate speech has led to violent, racially motivated murders by white supremacists in Charleston, Portland, and Maryland over the past couple of years. We must be willing to address the fact that hate speech promulgated this violence, and we need to be willing to work together to come up with solutions at levels beyond our local communities.

Although this is a contentious and complex issue, there is no reason why our democratic institutions cannot develop guidelines for criminalizing hate speech. We already restrict speech in cases of libel, fighting words, in professional settings, and with regard to commerce. If we truly believe in the importance of free speech, then we must be willing to have these conversations and protect ourselves from the harms of hate speech. Not just the immediate harms to individual people or groups, but the harms to democracy itself.

Billie Murray is an associate professor of communication at Villanova University.


The views expressed by contributor are their own and are not the views of The Hill.