Free Speech vs. Hate Speech : Where Do We Draw the Line?

SCC is not free of white supremacy.

A white supremacist has been sighted on campus twice, wearing a Hammerskins emblem (a white supremacist symbol of two claw hammers over a gear), according to communications professor Elena Esquibel, who moderated the first half of an event on May 1 in the PUB. The event, on free speech versus hate speech, was a panel in which five speakers responded to the moderators’ and audience’s questions.

Esquibel, who teaches communications at SCC, asked the panelists’ opinions on what should be done. Should the racist be silenced? Can clothing be hate speech? Free speech?

According to Esquibel, “There are a lot of different interpretations of this man on campus.”

But what she wanted to know from the speakers was, “Where do we draw the line?”

Hilary Bernstein, the Pacific Northwest regional director of the Anti-Defamation League (which she’s been with for 12 years), responded to Esquibel’s question by citing an incident that occurred several years ago in Lynnwood, where every haybale on one farmer’s property was spray painted with giant swastikas. They were painted so they could be clearly seen from freeway. The owner of the property was not a minority, and so Bernstein said she believes it wasn’t a hate crime, as they couldn’t connect the symbol to a specifically targeted person or group.

Bernstein emphasized two “I words” that she encouraged the audience to focus on: intent and impact. The intent of the perpetrator and the impact caused by the action are key to determining whether something is a hate crime. Bernstein encouraged the audience to interact with people who offend them, even though being exposed to people who believe stereotypes to be facts can be draining. Interaction with people whose views vary dramatically from your own challenges why you think the way you do, which leads to personal growth.

One way Bernstein thinks about the prevalence of stereotypes is how people know what they are. She addressed the audience, asking them to fill in the blank in her statement: “The moon is made of green—?”

“Cheese!” the audience recited back.

“You don’t believe it for a second, you don’t know where you’ve heard it.” Bernstein explained. “You don’t believe those things, but they’re there.”

Growing up, Bernstein was taught by her progressive, well-meaning parents in a Southern state to say, “I don’t see color.” As she described the mentality of her parents, she turned to the woman seated next to her, Michele Storms, who has worked with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for seven months and who is black. Storms smiled as Bernstein explained why she no longer had that mentality.

“It’s ridiculous to ignore a huge part of who (Storms) is,” Bernstein said. She now believes that not seeing color isn’t the same thing as being tolerant.

Janet Clark, community activist and homeschooling mother of four — the eldest of which has a doctoral degree — agreed with Bernstein.

She said she believes people should step outside their comfort zone and meet people who are different from them. Clark recounted a story of people who approach her fearfully in public, as if afraid of offending her, to ask simply, “Can I ask you a question?” Most often, it’s a question about her faith because she wears a hijab.

If the question comes from a place of openness, Clark is happy to answer anyone’s question. Interactions with strangers, though, don’t always go so well.

Clark was born in Montana, but in the ‘90s, when she was still living there, a person on the street yelled at her to “Go home, Iranian!” Except she was born in America.

Devin Burghart, the vice president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, said he believes the best way to combat hate speech is with more speech. Burghart has edited two books on the subject of Hammerskins and aims to make the supremacists appear less cool — not as edgy or extreme as they try to appear when targeting vulnerable youths they want to recruit. Hammerskins, Burghart believes, want to close the gap between youthful rebellion and racism.

Storms noted that free speech as a concept was not limited to literal, vocal speech. She cited students who wore black armbands in opposition to the Vietnam War as an example of people exercising their right to free speech without words. Storms knows the danger of silencing one group and causing a snowball effect: “If we clamp down on any one group‘s ability to express themselves, then one day your ideas will be clamped down, too,” she stated.

She cautioned against letting speech that is hateful or offensive shut everything down. Sometimes, she stated, you have to uphold even hateful speech.

Michael Hogan, who was the deputy prosecutor for King County for over 30 years, noted that “People are often very surprised at what the law allows,” saying that the First Amendment protects a large amount of vulgarity. Usually, the law does not prohibit speech; the law most often prohibits conduct, he said.

He cautioned the audience not to engage with people using hate speech, in case it escalates.

“Most hate crimes are not perpetuated by white supremacists,” he said. Most perpetrators have no political agenda and are not ideologically driven, but are rather “drunken bullies” or mentally disturbed people, Hogan said.

Hogan believes the best way to limit hate crime is to avoid inebriated people.

“If you’re dealing with intoxicated people, avoid it, turn it over to the police,” he said.

Hogan often hears in his line of work that alcohol is “truth serum.” It does not plant new, racist ideas in people’s heads. Those ideas are already there.

Still, he rarely sees the same hate crime perpetrators charged twice. The shame involved with committing a hate crime is huge, and the pressure from the community in liberal places like King County is significant. There is huge stigma that comes with committing a hate crime, he said.

The lines between free speech and hate speech are often blurred, but the answer is not to assume everyone in every social group is on the same page; the answer is to have an open dialogue, even with people whose views you find distasteful.

-Nellie Ferguson