When Is Freedom of Speech Too Much?
Commentary by Becky Tallent | FāVS News
That was a question put to me recently by a friend, a university researcher here from Germany. In his country, the aggression we are seeing in much of the current national discourse on social media would not be allowed.
Yet here, calling for the genocide of a people is permissible.
It is a very hard question, indeed.
Limits on First Amendment
While the First Amendment does give us freedom of speech, the U.S. Supreme Court has placed some limits. Notable, the ruling you cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theatre to create a panic or harm people from the 1919 Schneck v. United States case. That decision was partially overturned in the 1969 Brandenburg v. Ohio case which limited the scope of banned speech.
Hate crime laws on both the state and federal level have also placed some restrictions on speech. However, that does not stop people from making hateful, even harmful, statements.
We’re seeing it more and more these days with the political polarization of the United States. Most recently, since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas and Israel’s retaliation, there has been more focus on the Jewish and Islamic communities.
Last November, the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism reported a 388% increase in antisemitic harassment, vandalism and assault – often started with aggressive speech – between Oct. 7 and 23, with 190 of those cases directly linked to the war in the Middle East.
In December, the Council on American-Islamic Relations reported an escalation of anti-Arab incidents with 2,171 reports of hate crimes, hate speech and workplace discrimination.
Hate on Social Media and on Campuses
Looking at social media, it is astounding how many posts are showing hatred, strong language about hatred for all followers of Judaism or Islam. One LinkedIn member posted about a sign in the Tri-Cities which said “Kill all the Jews.” It is just as easy to see calls to “get rid of all Arabs” on Facebook or X.
Universities are not helping. Public Congressional testimony in December saw university presidents hesitating, refusing to denounce violence and violent words against Jews. The presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and MIT all declined to say calling for the genocide of Jewish people would be against their school’s code of conduct. In short, they placed freedom of speech over people’s safety.
Over the weekend of Dec. 9, someone placed a Palestinian flag over a menorah on the Yale University campus. A vile act during Hanukkah. Local campuses are not exempt. There are discussions, arguments and fights for both Israel and Palestine on all campuses.
During the past 10 years, America has grown colder and meaner in attitude toward others, especially racial and religious minorities. Under the guise of free speech, some people have said the unthinkable, calling for killing groups of people with whom they disagree or dislike.
For a country that calls itself a Christian nation, it is, indeed, shocking.
It is a difficult line to walk. Everyone has their opinion.
Speech that Causes Harm Should be Limited
Most reasonable people would agree that if the speech is intended to hurt or create harm, then it should be restricted or reconsidered. In cases such as these, there is no “Just joking” escape clause whether or not the intent is to do damage.
As someone whose race was targeted for elimination, I know the stories and feel the pain my ancestors felt when the U.S. government tried to erase us through moving us, taking the children to boarding schools or even outright murder.
While we have freedom of speech, there is little commendable about racial or religious slurs and actions directed at specific people, even if it is under the veil of social media.
Is there a solution? I’m not sure what it might be. People who hate tend to resist any attempts to change their minds. Perhaps what my German friend says is true: My freedom ends at the tip of your nose.
The views expressed in this opinion column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FāVS News. FāVS News values diverse perspectives and thoughtful analysis on matters of faith and spirituality.