When Hate Speech is not Free

April 25, 2018

I recently found myself befuddled, in front of an audience, blurting misinformation with utter conviction. Luckily I was called on it almost immediately by an internet-armed fact checker stationed at the front of the crowd.


Here’s what I said, “Hate speech is not protected speech.”


Not true, of course. Hate speech is protected by the constitution, reaffirmed by the courts. In a 2017 Supreme Court decision upholding the protection of hate speech, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote:


“A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all. The First Amendment does not entrust that power to the government’s benevolence. Instead, our reliance must be on the substantial safeguards of free and open discussion in a democratic society.“ 


True, of course. But hate speech is NOT free when people come together to make sure it is not free of consequence in a civil society.


This is the Pyramid of Hate. It is a tool used in numerous disciplines to explain how acts of prejudice escalate to violence. The pyramid captures both the progression of an individual and the progression of a culture along the path to deadly acts of hate.


It starts with unchallenged biases, failures to acknowledge that stereotypes or negative perceptions about others are wrong. It's hearing a racist or sexist or ableist joke and letting it go.


Our biases are reinforced by rhetoric and selective media intake. We isolate ourselves physically and virtually from difference, and soon we move into prejudice. Now you are telling the joke, forwarding the joke, accepting the stigmatization and marginalization of whole groups of people. Broad social prejudice is evident in how language migrates toward vulgarity, and terms that were once considered offensive are mainstreamed.


One example is the insidious adoption of the phrase “illegal alien” to describe undocumented immigrants. It was an abhorrent slur that crept gradually into the vocabulary of newscasters and beyond into American culture. It is a dehumanizing description that equates a breach of civil law with base criminal behavior.


Discrimination is a very short step beyond prejudice when the climate is right. We see it in our communities and hear of it across the country. In southern Minnesota we witnessed it when a local business posted the words “Muslims get out” under the daily lunch special on their marquee. We see processes, policies, and even systems applied differently to different population groups.


Violence is equally visible in our culture. Hate, manifest in assaults, vandalism, and brutish acts, punctuates the media every day. The violence is compelled by fear mongering and hate speech and blatant discrimination.


So. How far are we from the pinnacle? How far from large-scale arson, bombings, assassinations, or other deadly acts? The chilling truth is that there has not been a genocide in human history that did not start with bias. Genocide is committed by ordinary people responding to the amplification of hate.


There are protections in place to address incidents as they move up the pyramid: procedural remedies, civil prosecution, criminal prosecution;   but we only have our own voices, singly and combined, to combat bias and hate.


Here are two examples of what it looks like when hate speech is not allowed to be free speech. When it is protected, but not tolerated, rewarded, sustained, and institutionalized. Please respond with stories or reports of your own about standing up to hate.




The combination of high visibility, public outcry, and campus commitment to values led to strong and immediate action against a fraternity video filled with hateful slurs. Students, administration and community all rose up to condemn the behavior and the fraternity was suspended immediately.





A community came together to push back against hate growing in its midst. Citizens, elected officials, and business owners convened to send a strong message to neo-Nazis gathering in their town. Efforts were not ultimately enough to keep the group away, but the message was clear that residents did not support the call to hate.

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