Nadine Strossen on ‘Hate Speech’ Laws vs. Free Speech

Every so often, the debate over “hate speech” moves to the foreground, and we hear urgent calls for the United States to enact laws banning it. Many claim that such laws would have beneficial outcomes, curtailing speech that belittles, demeans, offends, or discriminates. Canada, the United Kingdom, France and many other Western countries have enacted “hate speech” laws. Some people argue that the U.S. should follow their example.

But what exactly is “hate speech”? What can we learn from the experience of countries with “hate speech” laws?

That’s where I began my conversation with Nadine Strossen, professor emerita at New York Law School and author of Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship. Strossen is a noted expert on free speech, the immediate past president of the American Civil Liberties Union, and a board member of Heterodox Academy and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

In her book Strossen offers an incisive analysis amply illustrated with evidence (though there are aspects of her book that I disagree with). What leaps off the page — and what came out vividly in our conversation — is the fact that “hate speech” is an inherently subjective term, one that even the best legal scholars have failed to define objectively.

What do “hate speech” laws look like in practice? In Canada, for example, a man was prosecuted for distributing four pamphlets quoting Bible verses in opposition to homosexuality. The pamphlets went through three levels of judicial review. One court found that all four were punishable “hate speech.” Another, that none of them was. The third, that two pamphlets were criminally punishable but two were not.

The wider lesson is that “hate speech” laws are a threat to freedom of speech because they unleash governments to arbitrarily silence dissenting or unpopular speech. I came away from the conversation grateful that the United States is an outlier — that we have the First Amendment to protect freedom of speech and stand as an obstacle to the enactment of “hate speech” laws.

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Racism, ‘Color Blindness,’ and Tribalism

Martin Luther King famously dreamed of a future in which his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Today that dream is far from realized, and the idea of being “colorblind” is increasingly regarded as entrenching racism. Instead, we’re urged to regard people as members of racial, ethnic and other group identities.  What is racism — and what does it take to combat it? Does “colorblindness,” as some claim, worsen the problem?

Onkar Ghate and Elan Journo examine aspects of today’s debate over racism, the philosophic issues shaping it, and Ayn Rand’s distinctive account of the evil of racism. Jan. 18, 2021.

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A Conversation with Flemming Rose on Islamist Threats to Free Speech

“We are living under siege, in Paris, in 2020,” said Fabrice Nicolino, a journalist who survived the massacre at the magazine Charlie Hebdo. Speaking at the trial of the alleged conspirators in that massacre, Nicolino decried the fact that the magazine now operates under heavy security: “What we are enduring, you aren’t interested in it.”

In 2015, Islamists burst into the offices of Charlie Hebdo and, with seeming military precision, executed 11 people, including the editor and many of the publication’s leading cartoonists. The magazine had published a cartoon of Muhammad. The gunmen had come to “avenge the prophet.”

To mark the opening of the trial in September, Charlie Hebdo republished the notorious cartoons of Muhammad . In an editorial, it stated: “We would have found it unacceptable to start this trial without presenting them to our readers and to the public. . . . These cartoons are part of history.”

Several weeks later, a man wielding a meat cleaver went to the former offices of the magazine (unaware it had relocated) and stabbed two people he thought worked there. Denouncing Charlie Hebdo’s republication of the Muhammad cartoons, he admitted to police that he planned to set fire to the building.

While the trial was ongoing, in north Paris on October 16, a young Islamist attacked a middle-school teacher, Samuel Paty, and beheaded him. Paty had shown some students one of the cartoons that appeared in Charlie Hebdo — “during a moral and civic education class discussion about freedom of speech.”

What’s the climate today for freedom of speech, specifically on the topic of Islam, in Europe? What can we make of the response of European governments?

To understand the situation, I talked to Flemming Rose, a journalist and author of The Tyranny of Silence.In 2005, he was an editor at the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten when it commissioned and later published cartoons on the subject of Islam to assess the seeming climate of self-censorship. That decision led to boycotts, deadly protests, and a global crisis. Al Qaeda put Mr. Rose on a hit list, and today when he leaves home, he must be accompanied by bodyguards.

We talked about the “cartoons crisis,” which has become shrouded in misconceptions, the worldwide protests and boycotts that ensued, and the massacre at Charlie Hebdo (it had republished the Danish cartoons in support of freedom of speech). Following that attack, millions flocked to the streets of Paris to show their solidarity with the murdered journalists, declaring on banners, “Je Suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”). What became of that visceral outpouring of support in the years since?

The Charlie Hebdo massacre and subsequent attacks have stoked fears about some Muslims in France rejecting the country’s principles of secular government and free speech. The French president, Emanuel Macron, has expressed concern about “Islamist separatism”: Is this a significant phenomenon, I asked Mr. Rose, and what’s his view of the French government’s approach to it?

Flemming Rose is a thoughtful observer. I found the conversation illuminating, but also chilling.

Cross-posted from New Ideal.

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The Covid-19 Vaccines: Interview with Dr. Amesh Adalja

With infections surging and hospitals strained, three new Covid-19 vaccines reportedly have +90% efficacy. What kind of real-world effectiveness can we expect from these vaccines? What will it take to roll them out? In this episode, Elan Journo talks with infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh Adalja about these promising vaccines, ongoing misinformation, and what lies ahead in the pandemic. Recorded Dec. 03, 2020.

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Giving Thanks to Unsung Heroes

What is the real meaning of Thanksgiving? What’s there to celebrate amid a surging pandemic, rolling economic devastation, and renewed lockdowns? Particularly in these grim times, it’s important to reflect on the values we rely on everyday, yet often take granted or fail to appreciate. Elan Journo and Ben Bayer discuss the secular, philosophic meaning of Thanksgiving and celebrate stories of inspiring achievement and unsung heroes. Recorded on Nov. 24, 2020.

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