This one is long overdue—I finished it months ago. I bought this book, “Hate: Why we should resist it with free speech, not censorship”, by Nadine Strossen, to talk about free speech with some friends in a podcast. We never got to do that particular episode but, if you can understand Catalan, you can check the others in this link. Luckily, I enjoyed the book quite a lot.
Nadine Strossen is the former American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) president. Her tenure expanded from 1991 to 2008. The ACLU is one of the organisations that have filed complains in the recent years against some government action, including the travel ban imposed by Trump in his first days as president and the non-prosecution of policemen involved in the shooting of unarmed African-American civilians.
Apart from that, the ACLU has been a strong advocate of free speech (at least until now, things might be about to change on that front). The best example of this advocacy can be found by going back to 1977-78 when the ACLU defended the right of neo-nazis to demonstrate in Skokie, Illinois, a city with a large Jewish population. What better test of your belief in free speech is there? If someone decides that neo-nazis do not have the right to demonstrate (pacifically) then they are not in favour of free speech. Can you imagine how easy it would be to look the other way? Yet the ACLU, at a high cost (they lost many of their members), decided to stand on their principles in a remarkable non-Groucho Marxist manner. Nadine Strossen defends this episode. It might be worth here to point out that Strossen is Jewish—just in case someone is thinking that she defended the episode because she was a neo-nazi.
The main argument of the book—as the subtitle goes—is that one fights hate speech with more, not less speech. But the underlying theme of the book is a fantastic defence of the First Amendment of the US Constitution and a cautionary tale not to undermine it and end up as many other countries, including unfortunately the UK and others in Europe. We have the recent case of a woman convicted by an Austrian court—a conviction subsequently upheld by the European Court of Justice—for saying that “Muhammad was a paedophile”. Or a youtuber for teaching how to do the Nazi salute to his girlfriend’s dog. These would be clear violations of the First Amendment.
The arguments for free speech can be divided into two. The first argument is that any law that tries to curtail free speech—for instance, by not allowing hate speech towards minority groups—would be vague by definition and hence open to abuse. A usual example is the definition of hate speech itself. What is hate speech? Depending on the definition, it is related to the intentions of the speaker or the offence taken by the subjects of the speech. Trying to guess the intentions of the speaker has always surprised me. I tend to believe people about the reasons they say what they say. But there are others—this is usually the case in partisan discussions—that continuously attempt to read the mind of the adversary. In fact, the Austrian court previously mentioned cited the intentions of the defendant as a reason to convict her. Leaving the conviction to the offence taken by some people seems even more problematic. Any law trying to curtail hate speech, hence, is subject to manipulation.
But let us assume that we can avoid the vagueness problem. Let us assume that the law and its application are perfectly targeted to what we consider hate speech. What do we wish to accomplish by restricting it? There will still be people that believe such things. To the extent that a government cannot prevent speech—and this is a good thing—this speech will continue to exist but underground. There is something attractive about conspiracies and revealed truths. There is no other way to understand how people can believe that the Earth is flat. There is no other way to understand the rejection of evidence. By restricting this type of speech one would push it underground where it can attract more and more people.
The answer is, hence, more speech. This is unfortunately quite unfashionable nowadays. While the First Amendment in the US seems to be in good shape, the attitudes of the population towards free speech might be changing. We have some illustrative examples regarding the presence of Milo Yiannopoulos or Ben Shapiro at Berkeley. And survey data seems to confirm this point. Yet Strossen—and I, for that matter—believe that the answer is to confront Milo, Ben, and company with more speech.