A new poll finds that Americans say they still support the First Amendment. But do they really?
At first glance, the latest RealClearOpinion survey examining Americans’ attitudes towards free speech looks like good news. After all, a whopping 9 in 10 respondents say that the Constitution’s First Amendment protections for free speech are a “good thing,” with just 9.2% of people saying they’re a “bad thing.” So, are Americans almost all back on board with the whole free speech thing?
When you look closer at the survey’s findings, the top-line result is belied by the specifics of what many Americans actually support. When asked in vague, general terms, they say they support the First Amendment, but when offered specific examples, they quickly reveal different beliefs.
For example, the survey asked Americans whether the Constitution’s free speech protections should extend to the racist hate group the Ku Klux Klan. An astounding 58% of respondents said that the KKK should not have free speech rights under the First Amendment. In a similar vein, 58% said that the right to free speech should not extend to the Nazi Party and 55% said the same about the Communist Party.
See the problem yet?
If you believe in “free speech” in principle but not for any of the people with icky beliefs… you don’t actually believe in free speech. You can’t simply declare that “hate” is beyond-the-bounds of free speech, because what constitutes “hate speech” is inherently subjective and giving the government the power to decide which ideas are off-limits is inevitably going to lead to the entrenchment of the status quo.
No one agrees what “hate” actually is. Some would argue that advocating against laws restricting abortion is “hateful” because, in their view, you are defending the murder of unborn babies. On the contrary, others would argue that advocating for these very same laws is “hateful” because, in their view, you’re advocating to control women’s bodies and condemn them to second-class citizens.
Similarly, as Nadine Strossen points out for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), “some powerful politicians denounce Black Lives Matter advocacy as hate speech, whereas others in turn denounce that very denunciation as hate speech.”
As Strossen aptly concludes, “One person’s cherished repudiation of intolerance is someone else’s hate speech.”
So, supporting free speech means supporting the legal protection of free speech that you find “hateful.” Full stop. Americans who think they can support free speech but just not for the people they find particularly noxious are, at best, hopelessly confused, and, at worst, dangerously misguided.
If we let our politicians create free speech exceptions for “hate speech,” it won’t be long before the exception becomes the new rule. And we’ll only have ourselves to blame.
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