Try again, buddy: ‘Why America needs a hate speech law’ author unconvincing

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Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

The United States Constitution’s first amendment provides protections for freedom of speech, including but not limited to what others deem “hate speech.” MSNBC analyst and former government official Richard Stengel recently penned an op-ed for The Washington Times discussing exactly why we need to do away with such expansive freedom and begin punishing “hateful speech that can cause violence by one group against another.”

He began the piece by recalling his time as a journalist who loved the idea of the First Amendment, but noted that he changed his mind after becoming a government official. (It surprises nobody that joining the government gives you a distaste for the freedom of the little people.)

When I was a journalist, I loved Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s assertion that the Constitution and the First Amendment are not just about protecting “free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

But as a government official traveling around the world championing the virtues of free speech, I came to see how our First Amendment standard is an outlier. Even the most sophisticated Arab diplomats that I dealt with did not understand why the First Amendment allows someone to burn a Koran. Why, they asked me, would you ever want to protect that?

By describing our freedoms as an “outlier,” Stengel successfully announces that he has quite a different idea about freedom than those who see our First Amendment as a unique opportunity that is denied to most of the world. Rather than seeing that as a good thing, he views it as an obstacle and a “design flaw.”

Yes, the First Amendment protects the “thought that we hate,” but it should not protect hateful speech that can cause violence by one group against another. In an age when everyone has a megaphone, that seems like a design flaw.

Burning the Koran is as equally protected as “p*ss Christ,” burning the American flag, and insulting public officials. While one side or the other would like to see these things banned, they are legally defined as freedom of speech. Just because someone doesn’t like it doesn’t mean that it should be denied the same space as popular and non-controversial ideas.

As if on cue, Stengel invokes “Russia” as a reason that we should be more cautious with our freedom of speech. He believes that our First Amendment successfully protected Russian “bad actors” and allowed them to spread misinformation leading up to the 2016 presidential election.

“In the weeks leading up to the 2016 election, Russia’s Internet Research Agency planted false stories hoping they would go viral,” he writes. “They did. Russian agents assumed fake identities, promulgated false narratives and spread lies on Twitter and Facebook, all protected by the First Amendment.”

“The Russians understood that our free press and its reflex toward balance and fairness would enable Moscow to slip its destructive ideas into our media ecosystem,” he continued. “When Putin said back in 2014 that there were no Russian troops in Crimea — an outright lie — he knew our media would report it, and we did.”

Stengel chalks the romanticism of the First Amendment protections of speech up to “a simpler time” where not everyone had a Twitter account and could go viral for saying something outrageous, factually inaccurate, and morally reprehensible. He claimed the Founding Fathers of the United States adopted the idea of “the marketplace of ideas” because they believed that it was necessary to make informed choices. Stengel argues that social media has changed the landscape so vastly that the marketplace is no longer a free and fair arena.

On the Internet, truth is not optimized. On the Web, it’s not enough to battle falsehood with truth; the truth doesn’t always win. In the age of social media, the marketplace model doesn’t work. A 2016 Stanford study showed that 82 percent of middle schoolers couldn’t distinguish between an ad labeled “sponsored content” and an actual news story. Only a quarter of high school students could tell the difference between an actual verified news site and one from a deceptive account designed to look like a real one.

(If high school students can’t tell the difference between real and fake news, why are Democrats so gung-ho about letting them vote?)

At the end of his piece, Stengel argues that other nations have instituted “guardrails” against speech that can incite racial and religious hatred, and the United States should “experiment” with that.

Why shouldn’t the states experiment with their own version of hate speech statues to penalize speech that deliberately insults people based on religion, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation?

All speech is not equal. And where truth cannot drive out lies, we must add new guardrails. I’m all for protecting “thought that we hate,” but not speech that incites hate. It undermines the very values of a fair marketplace of ideas that the First Amendment is designed to protect.

What Stengel fails to understand is that by effectively banning “hate speech,” you are not wiping it out. You are not erasing hateful, violent, or malevolent thoughts from the minds of the populace. People who are set on hate will always hate.

Instead, such an action will drive “hate speech” underground, where these ideas can fester among like-minded supporters. Hatred for minority groups will remain unchallenged, denied a public platform where the ideas can be refuted, exposed, and denounced. Much like the argument against gun control, restrictions on freedom of speech will create a black market. While the rest of us live in blissful ignorance and feigned “peace,” no longer verbally confronted with thoughts that make us upset and/or uncomfortable, those who are determined to show the world their ignorance and bigotry are free to do so without fear of public discourse.

One would think that a country where you can see your opponent and discuss their beliefs in an open and free way is much more fair to everyone than a world where certain schools of thought are relegated to the shadows, unchecked.

And in a country that squashes speech on a whim, who is to say that yours won’t be next?

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