Friday, June 1, 2007

Racism and Free Speech: Part I

In my previous post, I discussed briefly the recent controversy surrounding Don Imus and the issues it raises around racism and free speech. In that particular case, the issue actually seems more straightforward than many have made it out to be (Don Imus has a right to say whatever stupid thing he wants; his network has a right to control the speech they present; everyone else has the right to be offended or not at his comments and to say so), but in other instances, things are not so clear.

On the one hand, I find racism and racist speech, and other forms of hate speech, abhorrent. On the other hand, I strongly support the right to free speech. Freedom of speech is a critical component of any society that values freedom of action in general. For scholars, freedom of speech is any absolutely essential ingredient of any intellectual debate that is invigorating, interesting, or respectful of truth. Freedom of speech should only be abridged for good and serious reason.

Still, as is common to acknowledge, there are limits to free speech. To me, the right to free speech reaches a limit when speech causes significant harm to another or seriously infringes the free action of another. (I’m aware there’s a grey quality to this – what counts as “significant” or “serious” – but in actual social relations, I often find that room to interpret and maneuver are as important as principles. So, does calling member of the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy headed hos” constitute significant harm? It arguably caused harm – it has the character of a slander – but while the comment was offensive, racist, insulting, and I’m glad he’s off the air, in itself I’m not sure how the comment causes significant harm.) Serious slanders that harm another’s reputation and standing; speech which constitutes a threat (and so is as much an assault as the communication of topical content); speech which harasses and thereby infringes significantly on the actions of another; such speech acts should not be protected, but other speech which communicates content and ideas should be, no matter how heinous or repulsive.

I’d like in the next few posts to consider three sorts of cases involving racism and free speech issues – the dissemination of videos by racist hate groups on the YouTube site; “Holocaust Denial” laws; and academic freedom and racism in the classroom.

Racist Videos and YouTube

There is a tendency to think that the internet and other widely distributed communication technologies will bring greater freedom and democratization, and so they will to a certain extent. But that includes greater freedom for organizations like Al Qaeda to coordinate terrorist activities, to communicate propaganda and inspire others to terrorist acts, and to disseminate videos of beheadings.

In the United States, this has also meant greater ability for racists to distribute their ideas – any lone racist can put up a website or blog and reach thousands of readers. Organized hate groups have taken advantage as well of new media technologies. As a recent article in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s print and online magazine Intelligence Report points out, various Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups have already posted thousands of videos on the YouTube web site, some of which have been viewed by hundreds of thousands.

As the Intelligence Report article also points out, YouTube’s policy is to eliminate from the site explicitly racist or hate-mongering videos from the site when the site is made aware of them. Though I strongly support free speech rights, including of racists to make racist videos, I applaud YouTube’s policy. All decent people should reject racism, and to compel a private website to carry content its managers find offensive (or simply bad P.R. for the site) would be a violation of their right of free expression. At the same time, I’d be strongly opposed to any governmental restriction on the distribution of political thought, regardless of how offensive.

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