Questions to and Answers from Leslie Zinn

Winnie Lipson asks: Leslie, as a free speech advocate I would like your opinion of how to react to hate speech, how to react to the neo fascists of my time?

Be aware, I am no lawyer, but I hope we are all free speech advocates. It is a very basic, bedrock right. There is an elementary observation we have to start with. Free Speech doesn’t mean free for who I like but not for who I dislike or who I abhor. It means precisely speech free from curtailment and punishment for everyone or it means nothing.

But what is free speech? It is a protection against government curtailment. If I tell you, in my living room, you can’t talk about potatoes – so be it. I am not impinging your free speech, I am saying, not in my living room. If the state says we can’t talk about potatoes in public – that’s different. That abridges free speech.

If a science journal says you can’t write about little green men on the moon, or deny global warming in its pages, that’s okay. Its like the living room. Likewise if a periodical says, no racism in our pages, regardless of the merits of the rest of what you write. But if the government says you can’t talk about such things in any writing anywhere, that is different.

The words involved can be pretty innocuous, little green men, or they can be incredibly important, global warming, but curtailing not in one’ own living room, or in some particular periodical, but everywhere, is an issue of free speech.

You will say, understandably, but these neo nazi are repulsive and their words hurt people and their intent is to incite. They are dangerous. you will add. Also, they don’t believe in free speech except to protect themselves, not for others. All that is true, in my opinion. But then in their opinion the same could be said about you or me if we say to the government, shut them up.

Do we want the government to decide who can and who can’t say what? No. A majority of all people to say so? No. We want the right precisely for minorities and precisely for views that are not liked. The neo Nazis intent might make some of their acts violations of laws against assault say, or some kinds of incitement. But other than that, the state telling them no, you can’t say that about immigrants, or Jews, or Blacks, or women, would violate their free speech – and ratifying the government doing that would be a terrible precedent and likely worse in your time than in most others, since in your time it would arm your Trump with the same option to use against dissent.

The fact that the government can’t say don’t say that, however, doesn’t preclude the government saying it is disgusting for you to say and think that – nor does it prevent others from saying it is disgusting.

So, if I say you can’t use hate speech in my living room. That’s fine. If the state says you can’t use hate speech in any living room – that infringes. Now, it may be that the state says you can’t literally incite violence – what is forbidden is then not words, per se, or a subject, but inciting. That is, I think, a different question, more like you can’t yell fire in a crowded theatre, a reasonable restriction. It can still become quite fuzzy, but at least in some cases such restraints are warranted.

So I would say the way to react to hate speech is to reject it, castigate it, demonstrate the flaws of it, organize to isolate it, but also to try to communicate with those who have gotten caught up or are posturing or just don’t get what they have become part of.