How Should Hate Speech Be Limited, If At All?

Carlos Villarreal
Executive Director

A few weeks ago the chapter had a membership discussion on free speech – and particularly how the NLG has and should approach free speech issues. Not that we are opposed to free speech, but speech rights are complicated by inequality of resources, power dynamics, and other factors that can’t be swept aside by simply insisting that everyone has the same rights under the American Constitution. We often distinguish the NLG from civil liberties organizations by pointing to our history of fighting for economic justice and taking a broader (or maybe more nuanced) view of human rights. What has that meant in practice, and what should it mean when we confront issues like hate speech?

The renewal of this discussion in the Guild came about after two specific questions came before us: (1) How should we respond to the labeling of pro-Palestinian activism on UC campuses as “hate speech”; and (2) how should we respond to the hateful advertisements on San Francisco buses that used the phrase “savages”? In the first place we felt that pro-Palestinian activists were being stigmatized and did not believe the speech in question was “hate speech.” At any rate, we certainly did not think the UC administration should limit or police it. The bus ads, on the other hand, were clearly “hate speech,” and the tough question was whether we ought to call on Muni to remove the ads, and if not, what should we call for.

Speakers at our event included allies from the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the ACLU. There were no sharp disagreements, but clearly no easy answers either.

One of the sticking points was the role of the state in all of this. If we advocate for a position that defines hate speech and empowers the state – whether the transportation authority or the FBI – to regulate it, will we have created a monster that would come after us and our allies more harshly than it would go after right wing hate groups? After all, at UC, that was exactly the danger we faced as the leadership contemplated a hate speech policy largely motivated by Palestinian solidarity activism.

On the other hand, we support all sorts of state regulations, e.g., civil rights laws. Is there not an analogy there? There is a risk, but we have to keep making demands of the state, just as with any issue, as long as there is a state.

Perhaps the critical element is the definition of “hate speech.” If well-defined by our politics and point of view, then the risk of empowering government agencies to handle enforcement would be reduced.

Can we not take into account motivation, for example, when defining hate speech? The ambiguous part of the bus ads was that they didn’t explicitly identify who the savages were. But anyone who knows anything about Pamela Geller – the woman behind the ads – and her various hate groups, will know that it should be taken as a broad statement, at the very least about most Muslims and most Palestinians.

Can we not look at context and power dynamics? An ad celebrating white power, for example, ought to be treated differently than one celebrating black power. Similarly, a statement in support of the victims of colonialism ought to be treated differently from one that urges support for its perpetrators.

In defining “hate speech” it would clearly be helpful to take such matters into account, but there is one more point of contention worth mentioning here. Would such a definition stand up to present-day jurisprudence? For a legal organization, we have to consider the legal lay of the land, even if we ultimately choose a strategy that ignores it. This is true especially when the community is asking for our position because we are a legal organization.

As I said, there are no easy answers, but we are up for the task nonetheless. The chapter board is hoping to create a position paper on this matter. Contact me at carlos@nlgsf.org if you have any insight.