Words Can Hurt: More on Free Speech and Hate Speech

Words Can Hurt: More on Free Speech and Hate Speech

This piece has been edited slightly from its original version to correct the title of a source.


“One man’s vulgarity is another man’s lyric,” said Ari Cohn, Director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.


Let me begin by saying that the discussion of free speech and hate speech needs to happen, but not only on a panel hosted by a radio broadcaster. The conversation needs to continue amidst our daily lives as well. KPCC, a local broadcasting company in partnership with NPR, brought a panel to campus, consisting of Cohn, ASUR President Kamal Bilal, President-Elect of the California Council of Cultural Centers in Higher Education Marcela Ramirez and Dean of University of Redlands School of Education Andrew Wall.


KPCC’s live forum: “Free Speech Versus Hate Speech on College Campuses” occurred last week in the Orton Center and was free and open to the public. The event hosted a discussion in an effort to dissect when free speech crosses a line and becomes hate speech.


What most people don’t understand is that the first amendment right to the freedom of speech protects more than just the words you use. Think of this dividing line where free speech becomes hate speech as the freedom of expression versus hateful expression.  At this point, it becomes extremely difficult to draw a line because expression is literally the thoughts and emotion that a person articulates. It is not anyone’s job to invalidate someone’s emotion or thoughts on the basis of disagreement and misunderstanding. Therefore, hate speech becomes a foggy misconstrued version of free speech. Attacking someone for their diversities or cultivating an unsafe environment should have punishments, but how do you censor harmful opinions when the amendment that outlines free speech is so vague?


Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, states that: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers,” as sourced by the United Nations.


A disturbing point of discussion addressed at this panel was the idea that hate speech is only hate speech when it leads to violence or physical contact. Violence is a different category of hate crime that should not be the main point in debating what free speech is and what hate speech is. Hate speech by definition is “speech that offends, threatens or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability or other traits.” If you read carefully, this clear and concise definition states “speech” not “physical violence.” The key takeaway is offensive derogatory words. Physical violence is a different thing. Violence does not create hate speech. However, hate speech can evoke violence.


One solution offered by Ramirez was that eliminating hate speech should begin with having difficult conversations about controversial issues at the dinner table. As Bilal pointed out, while the thought of molding a culture where families exemplify the standards of speech and debate sounds amazing, it is actually extremely complicated and hard to implement. Many communities face a reality where parental figures or other family members do not have the luxury of being able to sit down with their family at dinner time, nor do people always have the interest in sitting down with their children at the dinner table and having these difficult decisions. These elder figures are already fighting to keep a roof over their children’s heads or food on that empty dinner table.


In my perspective, if you want to teach children how to have difficult discussions, it needs to start in the classroom at an early age. A large quantity of children spend time in the education system even if they do not graduate. School is a common denominator in the lives of most kids and we should be using this to build healthy relationship skills and teach new generations how to effectively communicate and be mindful of others. Cultivating an environment based on trust, respect and listening to children’s ideas rather than sitting them at a desk and forcing them to listen is the direction that education needs to go.


With social media and the time void we call cell phones, people are having harder times using interpersonal communication skills in face to face interactions. Hate speech mostly stems  from ignorance, a lack of empathy and miscommunication. It is more difficult to insult someone based on their identity if you understand their struggle and backstory. Rather than arguing and going in circles about a debate that will probably never end, we should start talking about ways to positively grow from our societal errors.


Cohn responded to a comment where a student expressed his belief that unity will help eliminate hate speech. His rebuttal was that unity will downgrade the quality of diversification in this conversation. However, it became clear that Cohn’s interpretation of unity is better understood as conformity. Unity is being joined as a whole or as a team of individuals that have a common goal, not as a group of like-minded people with little opposition or tension. In fact, unity or common ground could be the solution we are looking for.


“In a divided nation, our children’s future is on the line. Common Ground is a movement committed to moderate, common sense ideas that can move our nation forward. We believe that finding common ground is the first step toward that goal. Now, more than ever, we must work together in order to succeed,” said Common Ground on their website.


Finding common ground has increasingly seemed to be the only solution to this political division that we face. Imagine how much stronger we could be as a country if we all found a reason to work together on pressing issues rather than turning our  back to them. Too often, we take the easy path out of something and forget that long-term solutions can be more important. I encourage everyone reading this to think about the way you interact with other people. Analyze the way you feel when having difficult decisions and think about the words you use. You know what they say, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can ALSO hurt me.”


graphic courtesy of reporter Amanda Schmalzried