By: Alex Falck
Alex Jones was banned from social media for spreading pernicious lies; Milo Yiannapoulos lost his book deal after endorsing some relationships “between younger boys and older men.” The ACLU has defended them both. As many on the left have begun arguing for more, not fewer, limits on free speech, the time seems ripe for a slim and well-reasoned volume entitled HATE: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship. Unfortunately, the question author Nadine Strossen addresses isn’t the one most people are asking.
On the topic of free speech, Strossen’s words carry weight. She was president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) from 1991 to 2008, but as a Jewish woman, she has also been the target of hate speech. “The old nursery rhyme is wrong,” she says, “when it declares, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’ Having been vilified with anti-Semitic and misogynist expression myself, I speak from experience. The reason why I still believe that we should continue to protect ‘hate speech’ is well summarized by another old saying: ‘The cure is worse than the disease.’”
Strossen convincingly demonstrates that hate speech laws tend to backfire, turning against the very liberals who supported them. After all, the KKK is unarguably a hate group, but the same moniker has been levelled against Black Lives Matter. There is already damning evidence of white supremacists in law enforcement; do we really want to give these people power over the legality of speech? Enforcing hate speech laws may even help spread hateful ideas—in Weimar Germany, notes Strossen, prosecuting Nazis for violating anti-hate-speech laws gave them notoriety and an air of martyrdom.
The problem is that Strossen only addresses hate speech legislation. While that narrow focus is appropriate to her expertise and keeps HATE at a lean 186 pages, it leaves quite a bit to the side. For instance, Strossen barely touches on free speech as it relates to social media, even though that is a major point of contention in the cultural debate. Another miss is when Strossen explains that threats and harassment are not protected speech, but doesn’t draw a connection to the threats and harassment that are regularly deployed on social media, much less suggest that our current problem may not be one of insufficient laws but insufficient enforcement.
Similarly, one of the book’s highlights—and downfalls—is its legalistic style. Strossen relies on evidence and hard logic to make her argument, a technique that is intellectually unassailable but not always convincing. Despite having been the target of hate speech, she doesn’t discuss how that experience impacted her or show much sympathy to others whose lives have been significantly disrupted. Instead, she argues that exposure to hate speech can be a short-term stressor that builds one’s resilience and teaches new coping mechanisms. For the Pozner family targeted by Alex Jones, the consequences of hate speech went far beyond stress; they have incurred the financial burden of repeatedly moving. For Adelaide Kramer, a student Yiannopoulos singled out for harassment at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, hate speech was not a “short-term stressor”—she left the school because “I had to keep fighting [for] my gender, and I reached the point where I’m out of patience to debate people on it.”
When it comes to the question of whether government should pass laws against hate speech, Strossen makes a strong argument for the value of counter-speech over legislation; the problem is that focusing on the legislative issue misses the forest for the trees.
Alex Falck is a Children’s Librarian at the Chicago Public Library. Alex is particularly interested in hearing and amplifying the voices of historically silenced people, including people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, and people with disabilities. Alex listens to lots of podcasts, and blogs at teenlib.tumblr.com. Find them on Twitter @AlexandriaFalck.