Edem Dzodzomenyo / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Scholars Jeremy Waldron, left, and Nadine Strossen, right, debated whether hate speech should be considered free speech at an event on Tuesday.

April 11, 2018

Scholars Clash Over Whether Hate Speech Is Free Speech

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Two scholars faced off on Tuesday over whether or not hate speech should be treated as free speech in the second event of the Free Speech Presidential Speakers Series.

Jeremy Waldron, University Professor at NYU School of Law, argued in favor of passing hate speech regulations. His opponent, Nadine Strossen, the John Marshall Harlan II Professor of Law, New York Law School and former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, disagreed with his stance that hate speech is not free speech.

Strossen began by telling the Myron Taylor Hall audience that the U.S. Supreme Court has never categorized a certain type of speech as hate speech, so hate speech is not required to be reviewed under constitutional terms.

She also said that she believes the government should not use its power to suppress an unfavorable idea even when it is a viewpoint that “the vast majority of the community despises.”

However, Strossen also claimed that she thought not all hate speech is immune to punishment. When the hate speech incident becomes subject to emergency principles, where it has the potential to “pose the greatest risk of harm” or cause the “intentional incitement of imminent violence,” she said there are existing U.S. laws in place to deal with the case.

Strossen said that she supports how the U.S. Government currently regulates hate speech since within this system, discordant ideas are not censored while the group impacted by hate speech can also be protected.

“We should not suppress an idea merely because that idea is offensive to somebody, but …  if we can avoid expressing that idea in a language that is insensitive, we should do that,”  Strossen said. “I think there is more to gain than lose from that … individual pressure and self pressure to watch what we say and avoid hurting people without stifling our ideas.”

Waldron argued that legislatures should be doing what they can to “prevent the fermenting of communal hostility between social or religious groups” through the passage of hate speech regulation.

He said that people would agree with his position if they had seen how large-scale intercommunal conflicts in countries like India or Nigeria had led to the severe poisoning of the states’ social atmosphere.

Waldron also talked specifically about hate speech and its impact on college campuses. The legal scholar said that although he acknowledged universities to be places of free inquiry where “free speech should be privileged,” he also believed that “the campus is a community that faces issues of vulnerability.”

“What the university authorities have to concern themselves with … is not just the expression of hate speech …  but [how] expression of hate speech … has been intended to poison the atmosphere on campus,” Waldron said.

“People are sensitive … people worry,” he said, arguing that college and university authorities need to take this aspect into consideration in addressing the issue.

The debate was the second installment in President Pollack’s speaker series, which aims to encourage discussion of the merits of free speech both on and off the college campus.