Free Speech & Hate Speech: Can They Coexist?

Human Rights PanelDeny the Holocaust in the United States and get ready for the verbal debate you’ll have. Try denying the Holocaust in most European countries and you can count on being fined and hauled off to jail.

Between the two philosophies of protected speech, who do you think got it right?

On July 26, a panel of three experts attempted to answer that very question at the Museum’s Holocaust & Human Rights Educator Conference. The panel, “Free Speech & Hate Speech: Can They Coexist?,” included Cheryl R. Drazin of the Jean and Jerry Moore Southwest Civil Rights Counsel and the Anti-Defamation League of North Texas and Oklahoma; Dr. Rick Halperin, Director of the Embrey Human Rights Program at Southern Methodist University; and Dr. Gregory Stanton, Research Professor in Genocide Studies at George Mason University and Founder and President of Genocide Watch.

Panelists noted that Holocaust denial is just one of many forms of speech—including drawing swastikas and wearing Nazi uniforms—that Europe has cracked down on since the end of WWII. Meanwhile, in the United States, “hate speech” remains a protected form of discourse that has been upheld by major court decisions time after time.

Ms. Drazin sides with the United States on this one. She takes the “libertarian” view of free speech, insisting that “only by protecting the most offensive and heinous speech can we protect all speech.”

Dr. Halperin, on the other hand, takes a “humanitarian” view of free speech, lauding the European approach to criminalizing hate speech and shutting down hate groups. To give listeners a better idea of the two underlying philosophies, Dr. Halperin juxtaposed the American belief in a fundamental “right to life” with the declaration of a “right to life with dignity” as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By its very nature, he argued, declaring a “right to life with dignity” would necessitate laws against hate speech.

Skeptical of both approaches to free speech, Dr. Stanton argued for a more moderate, “communitarian” approach.   “Hateful rhetoric,” he says, “can be monitored at the community level.” Hateful words that cause harm to a particular community can be addressed with an emphasis on a community’s wellbeing as opposed to an emphasis on the individual’s right to make hateful remarks.

All of the panelists agreed that Americans must pay better attention to the presence of hate speech on television, on the Internet, and in everyday interactions. Even if all speech is legal, it is our responsibility to confront hate speech with countervailing speech—a principle, as Dr. Stanton pointed out, hearkens back to Thomas Jefferson.

Hateful and offensive speech should put Americans on guard to combat such rhetoric and prevent extremism from turning into acts of violence. Whether hate speech is protected or not, our mission to protect human dignity starts with our choice of words. And to that end, we should never be afraid to speak up.

If you haven’t done so, be sure to visit the Museum’s special exhibit, “Survival in Sarajevo: La Benevolencija.”Based on Edward Serotta’s book Survival in Sarajevo: Jews, Bosnia, and the Lessons of the Past, the exhibit, which runs through Sept. 18, 2016. It features photos of Holocaust survivors, Catholic Croats, Muslims, and Orthodox Serbs caught in the horror of the longest siege of a city in the history of modern warfare.

And, we hope you will join us on Sept. 18 when, in recognition of the International Day of Peace, when the Museum will host “Peace Day Dallas – Meet Three Holocaust Survivors.” The survivors will each speak—one at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Each survivor speaker will tell their story then answer your questions. Please allow at least 1 hour for each survivor. On this day, there is no charge to hear the survivors or to tour the Museum. However, space will be limited.

–McGuire Boles, for the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance

 

 

 

 

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