A new survey suggests that America may be entering the last days of free expression. 41% of Americans believe that “hate speech” should be criminalized, according to YouGov’s latest poll. Only 37% think we should leave the First Amendment intact, even if it means people are allowed to make public statements which might “stir up hatred” against certain groups.
Of all the disturbing polls that get released every year, this one is more depressing than most. The United States has always stood for individual freedom, and the concept of free expression is central to that cause. Once we start chipping away at the First Amendment, we risk changing this country in foundational ways that could bring the whole house of cards tumbling down around us. And for what purpose? So everyone can go through life without getting their pwecious feelings hurt? Have we really become so sensitive that we can no longer tolerate people who don’t like us?
Americans disagree when it comes to the greatest threats facing the country – some say global warming, some say terrorism. But it seems that what we really fear the most is freedom. For a country built on liberty and independence, we salivate at the thought of making things illegal. You can’t have a coherent civilization without laws, of course, but where does it end?
When these respondents say they want to criminalize hate speech, what are they including under that umbrella? Would they like to see Pamela Geller imprisoned for holding a “Draw Mohammad” contest? Should anyone who posts to a site like Stormfront be locked up? Wouldn’t it be easier to adopt a sticks and stones philosophy than to take a match to the Bill of Rights?
Proponents of criminalization will argue that there are already limits to the First Amendment. Namely, you can’t make a death threat, incite a riot, slander someone, or make a direct call for violence. True enough, but these limits at least come with strict categorical definitions that don’t invite broad subjectivity into the mix. When it comes to hate speech, you run into all kinds of problems. Which words are outlawed? Which groups are protected? Who gets to decide? These laws don’t just put us on a slippery slope; they drop us into a free fall.
Once we start heading down this path, there’s no turning back. And once totalitarian-minded politicians see how gladly we criminalized hate speech, they’ll want to see if they can build on that precedent. They might just decide there are some passages in the Bible that have no place in a modern, tolerant society. Some jokes that are a little too offensive. Some political arguments that should be outlawed. Once we open the door to censorship, there’s no telling what might fly out. You may not like the KKK or the Westboro Baptist Church, but a law like this will eventually ensnare a group or a viewpoint you do like. By then, though, it will be too late to say anything.
In fact, it could be illegal.