If you want the minority and Danish majority to live together in peaceful ways, you have to ask if hate speech is fruitful. — Carsten Jensen (Danish author and political columnist)
In Mumbai, India a newspaper was shut down recently and its editor arrested for reprinting a 2006 Charlie Hebdo cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad weeping. According to a New York Times story, such “news coverage often conflicts with the government’s efforts to protect religious groups from insult and disrespect.” One of those who filed a police complaint was Nusrat Ali, a reporter. “You are free to write anything in our country, but you are not free to hurt religious sentiments,” he said. “Why would [Shirin Dalvi] print something that has caused tension and violence across the world?” he asked. “Publishing such cartoons threatens the peace and calm of our country.”
Legitimate concerns, real dangers. Ask yourself: what if those dangers became more likely and imminent here? How strong would our commitment to free speech be? Mindful of that, in a thoughtful Huffington Post piece titled “Charlie Hebdo and the First Amendment,” University of Chicago Law Professor Geoffrey Stone asks:
Are there any circumstances in which the government can constitutionally silence a speaker because others threaten violence if the speaker is allowed to proceed? Consider an extreme hypothetical. Suppose ISIS threatens to behead six American hostages if anyone in the United States publishes or otherwise displays the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Can our government, consistent with the First Amendment, make it a crime for anyone to do so? The Supreme Court has never faced such a case. What do you think?
Okay, how’s this for starters? — The proposed law seems to codify the heckler’s veto (or, more aptly put, a terrorist’s veto). Even before we venture to answer Professor Stone’s question we would have to assume that such a law would be precise and narrowly tailored, this as a constitutional threshold matter. That said, is the gravity of the threatened evil so great as to relieve the government of its constitutional obligation to, in Professor Stone’s words, “take every possible measure to prevent the violence before it may silence the speaker”? If so, would not the terrorist’s veto almost always trump the speaker’s First Amendment rights?
Terrorism is just bullying, extreme bullying. — Bill Maher (Jan. 2015)
Among other things, Professor Stone’s hypothetical invites us to think hard about just how far down the free speech road we wish to travel when that path may lead to lethal dangers. However absolutist the defenders of free speech may be, even they have their limits as Pater Holmes made clear in his Abrams dissent.
The Values of Offensive Speech
But there is more to this free speech debate than the dangers of so-called hate speech; there is also the question of the values, if any, of such speech. And that is the question that Carsten Jensen asks us to consider in the epigraph quote above.
Thankfully, a brief recently filed in the Supreme Court by the Cato Institute speaks to precisely that question. The amicus brief was submitted by Ilya Shapiro (counsel of record) and Robert Corn-Revere in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, the license plate case that will be argued next month.
Here are a few excerpts from their brief, which was recently filed with the Court:
— Offensive Speech Contributes to the Marketplace of Ideas: “The borderlands of the marketplace of ideas are inhabited by ideas that unsettle and offend. Only those ideas that people are allowed to express can be freely traded, so a “free trade in ideas” cannot exist when some ideas are relegated to the black market. . . . Indeed, because offensive speech changes the parameters of the marketplace, it is as vital to the exchange of ideas as so-called mainstream speech. Without expanding the borders of the marketplace, a society may stagnate. If no one ever offensively says ‘the Emperor has no clothes’ then a society may be condemned to dynasties of naked emperors, and that would be truly offensive.”
And they quote Salman Rushdie, “who certainly knows something about offending people: ‘What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist. Without the freedom to challenge, even to satirise all orthodoxies, including religious orthodoxies, it ceases to exist.'”
— Offensive Speech Fosters Self Expression and Helps Develop Personal Autonomy: “Expressing one’s deepest thoughts, feelings, and values is vital to defining oneself as a unique and autonomous individual. Those who are restrained from self-expression are often called ‘repressed,’ and years of therapy is often the cure. . . . Even more than ‘mainstream’ speech, offensive speech helps define us. Our commonalities do less to define our personalities than our eccentricities, offensive or otherwise. If speech is squelched by the government because it ‘might be offensive to any member of the public,’ then the government has closed off an important avenue for self-expression.”
There is more, much more, to this truly insightful (dare I say inciteful?) brief. In a legal world where amicus briefs too often add little beyond formulaic case-crunching, this brief is chock-full of value added, and for that reason I commend it to you.
Meanwhile, I leave you with the closing words of the Cato brief: “It would be offensive to the First Amendment for this Court allow Texas to tell us what is offensive. After all, one man’s offensive speech is another’s exercise of social commentary or personal expression.”
Is Flower v. U.S. (1972) still good law? . . . & why that question is important
On remand, the United States Court of Appeals affirmed Mr. Apel’s conviction, rejecting his First Amendment argument with no mention or apparent consideration of Flower v. United States. It seemingly accepted the argument made by the United States that Flower is no longer good law. — Erwin Chemerinsky, cert. petition in Apel v. United States (2015)