Hate speech should not be free speech.

Police assault demonstrators in Graham, North Carolina, October 31, 2020. Photo Credit: Carli Brosseau

As I watched President Biden’s inauguration this morning I was torn between two disparate emotions, relief and apprehension. Relief that after four years of utter incompetence, blatant nepotism, and non-stop hateful rhetoric we now have a competent team taking over the executive branch of our federal government. Apprehension because only a child or a fool would believe that the swearing-in of a new president will change the hearts and minds of friends, neighbors, and family members who have spent the last four years showing us who they really are. As Maya Angelou once wrote, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

I am glad that Donald Trump is gone. He and those who enabled him over the past four years did nothing but divide this nation and give relevancy to ideas most of us thought had long ago been relegated to the dustbin of history. We all knew there were still pockets of bigotry and hate scattered across this nation, but until Mr. Trump and his sycophants came along four years ago, most of those people kept their backward thoughts to themselves.

In that respect Donald Trump has actually done our nation an invaluable service: he showed us exactly who many of our neighbors really are; people who are fine with white supremacy, anti-Semitism, homophobia, violence, and other deplorable ideas as long as their team is in charge. Yes, that is really what it boils down to.

President Biden has called for unity, and that’s a worthy goal I support, but for real unity that is sustainable long term, there must be reconciliation, not a ceasefire. Those who participated in the Capitol riot must be charged, tried, and upon conviction punished for their actions, but those people did not arrive at those ideas on their own.

Over the years we have witnessed white supremacist ideologies and unfounded conspiracy theories move from fringe websites and late-night AM radio to mainstream media where greater exposure to larger audiences allowed those often dangerous ideas to spread like an unchecked pandemic. Those among us who spread hate, unfounded conspiracy theories, and outright lies, inspiring others to act out in violent ways, must be held accountable for their rhetoric.

Free speech is included in the First Amendment to our constitution because it is one of the most essential and precious rights we possess, but it is not a blank check to spew hate or inspire violence wherever we please without consequence. Free speech is a grave responsibility, especially in this digital age where we all have the power to send our words to the far reaches of the earth in an instant.

Justifications for limiting free speech often include something called the harm principle, first proposed by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, which suggests that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”  That means social disapproval or dislike for someone’s actions isn’t enough to justify intervention by the government unless there is a good chance those actions might harm someone else. For example, if you want to drink alcohol and you are a legal adult, you should be free to do so, but if you get behind the wheel of a car while under the influence, then you become a danger to your community and the government has a duty to infringe upon your rights to prevent you from harming others.

As an advocate for free speech I find myself torn today. Where do we draw the line in the sand on hate speech and symbols that reinforce ideas such as white supremacy? Our courts have determined that freedom of speech is not absolute. The American legal system generally sets limits on freedom of speech when it conflicts with other rights, such as in cases of libel, slander, obscenity, fighting words, or intellectual property. I believe it’s time for us to have an earnest conversation about hate speech and symbols in this country.

The Trump administration spent four years normalizing bigotry and white supremacy in America while the rest of the world looked on in horror. Trump made it seem acceptable to publicly mock people with disabilities and bragged about treating women as sexual playthings instead of persons fully equal to their male counterparts.

Worse, Donald Trump made it acceptable to use violence against Americans peacefully demonstrating against police brutality and murder, which, by the way, is also a right protected by the First Amendment. Following Trump’s lead law enforcement coast to coast escalated the use of force against peaceful protestors while Proud Boys, Boogaloos, and other white supremacist militias illegally carried guns to rallies without so much as a slap on the wrist.

If the mob on Capitol Hill two weeks ago had been predominantly people of color, you know as well as I do that Pennsylvania Avenue would have become a river of blood. This disparity is unacceptable and it must end now. For far too long we have allowed white supremacy to run unchecked in the United States of America, above and below the surface of our society.

Racist monuments to sedition and slavery, erected a century ago to oppress our Black brothers and sisters, must be removed from our public spaces and relegated to museums or the scrap yard. They are symbols of a failed insurrection based on white supremacy and the preservation of slavery and they have no place in twenty-first-century America as anything but teaching tools to show future generations how wrong their ancestors were. If real lasting unity is to be achieved this is a first step we must all take together.