The left-wing distaste for free speech has perhaps reached its climax, as one major liberal outlet has authors now publicly calling for a crack down on words they find offensive.
The Los Angeles Times published a piece yesterday which shocked many of its readers, titled The case for restricting hate speech.
The author, Laura Beth Nielsen, opens up the piece by informing the audience that she is a sociologist and legal scholar. She states,
“As a sociologist and legal scholar, I struggle to explain the boundaries of free speech to undergraduates. Despite the 1st Amendment—I tell my students—local, state, and federal laws limit all kinds of speech. We regulate advertising, obscenity, slander, libel, and inciting lawless action to name just a few. My students nod along until we get to racist and sexist speech. Some can’t grasp why, if we restrict so many forms of speech, we don’t also restrict hate speech.”
For a sociologist and legal scholar, this is quite the mental leap. “Because we regulate certain forms of speech, it must be acceptable to regulate any speech,” is essentially at the center of this argument. But let us examine why advertising, obscenity, slander, libel, and inciting lawless action are restricted.
These forms of speech hold certain restrictions because of property rights and contract law. A business which engages in false or fraudulent advertising is infringing upon their customer’s legitimate property rights, since they would not have conducted business with the company had they been honest about their product. Slander is illegal for a similar reason, since fraudulent claims also bear the same consequences as false advertising.
Obscenities may be regulated if a property owner does not wish to have people speak in such a manner on his land, since it may disturb other customers. For example, a movie theater would never let you shout “fire”. And the illegality of inciting lawless action is a no brainer. Threatening violence or harm to one’s person or property is the most obvious breach of property rights.
While in many instances, the government takes these restrictions way too far, the fact that these restrictions exist in no way lends credence to her argument. While a property owner may restrict people from using racist or sexist speech on their property, it would be a violation of one’s legitimate property rights for the state to force all property owners to prohibit this speech.
“Empirical data suggest that frequent verbal harassment can lead to various negative consequences. Racist hate speech has been linked to cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and requires complex coping strategies.”
This is not an argument. This is an appeal to emotion (also, it should be standard that if you’re going to claim that empirical data suggests this, that you would then cite the studies).
Any and all speech affects our behavior in some way or another. A rude customer may alter your performance. A bossy manager could drive you into depression. A bad breakup can do the same. Should all of these things be outlawed as well?
“But these free-speech absolutists must at least acknowledge two facts. First, the right to speak already is far from absolute. Second, they are asking disadvantaged members of our society to shoulder a heavy burden with serious consequences. Because we are ‘free’ to be hateful, members of traditionally marginalized groups suffer.”
Of course the right to speak is far from absolute. No one is saying it is. But this doesn’t permit you to outright ban any speech you don’t like. At what point do you stop? And on what legal basis does this legal scholar have to make this suggestion that hate speech should be legally restricted? The restrictions she references arise out of a protection of property rights, not a protection of hurt feelings. And furthermore, the Supreme Court literally just ruled that hate speech does not violate the first amendment.
Furthermore, such laws would only harm the very people you claim to care about. As free market economist Milton Friedman once said when destroying the narrative that we need equal pay for equal work laws to prevent people from discriminating in the workforce,
“The free market, by enabling people to compete openly, is the most effective device that has ever been invented for making people pay for their prejudices, and thus for making it costly for them to exercise it. And what you do when you impose the equal pay for equal work law, is that you make the expression of prejudice costless. And as a result you harm the people you intend to help.”
The same is true here. By outlawing this speech, you would only hurt those you help to intend, as now you would never know who the real bigots are. As Friedman would argue, allowing them freedom of speech would make it costly for them to exercise their prejudices, since they would be forced to face the court of public opinion.
Restricting free speech would do nothing but undermine property rights, hurt the people you intend to help, and open up a black hole that would allow for the government to restrict any other speech they deem offensive. Surely even the author must recognize that this is a very slippery slope.