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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The Challenge of Hate Speech: To Censor One is to Censor All?

Taylor Berry

Taylor Berry

Taylor Berry

Hate speech and free speech are difficult issues for the everyday day person to understand. Often it's the issue of defining what is considered hate speech as it crosses the line from being speech that falls under the First Amendment to something trickier to pin down that moves into the territory that causes civil unrest while leading to people feeling uncomfortable.

Technically, hate speech still falls under the 1st Amendment. However, morally is this form of speech a breach of the unwritten rules of our society? Yes, it’s a constitutional right but if an individual is aware that they have the power to cause to harm to another and they willingly choose to continue their actions what is that saying about themselves and society? So when can we draw the line and decide that the voices of a few should not be held to the same standards?

A few weeks ago, Nicholas Dirks, the former Chancelor of the University of California Berkeley, was a guest speaker and his talk “Free Speech and the University Under Assault” addressed the “alt-right” speaker, Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos’s appearance sparked a riot that magnified into something the community and nation were not prepared for. However, mass demonstrations are not a foreign entity to this school but, parallel to Cal’s history, it set a precedent that forced conversations to occur about hate speech on campus. The major point that stuck with me was the concept that if we censor one we have to censor all. Dirk went on to echo a common claim that stumps this hate speech dilemma. If we decide to censor one group (individual related to a specific group) then we run into the issue of setting a barometer that would have to be used to determine what is and isn't acceptable on campus.

Okay, so let’s look at this from both sides. Putting this into the perspective of an “alt-right” organization, the old “sticks and stones” rhyme can be used to defend their rhetoric coupled with this being an obvious example of their freedom of speech. However, the grey area to this claim is that if these words have the power to escalate a situation and can lead to physical violence and destruction of property, this claim of it being just words dissipates. Now looking at the targeted persons of this hateful rhetoric, how does an individual protect themselves from this form of speech and when does a person have the right to speak up and defend themselves?

Again, we come back to the idea of censorship. As history shows us, it is a slippery slope when people attempt to silence the voices of any group. I am stuck in the middle similar to the vast majority of people on this matter. Obviously this is an issue that has been pushed to the forefront but it will be interesting to see where these discussions take us in the future. Then again, this goes back to the idea of defining hate speech, questioning those who use it to express their opinions, and reflecting on how collectively we can communicate our different opinions. Being able to communicate effectively, being receptive to others’ opinions and having respect for the other side can lead to more effective dialogue with one another.

Oct 13, 2017

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