“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
My early education in the history of America left me with the understanding that primary driving factors that led early pioneers to leave their homeland are addressed in the first amendment to the Constitution. They wished to freely practice a chosen religion, publicly say what they wished and assemble without fear of retaliation from the government.
That sounds a lot like limited government, or at least a government that respects peoples’ faith, spoken words and peaceful demonstrations.
I share the pride of our country in having “freedom of speech.” The well-known exception is yelling fire in a movie theater when there is none; such an utterance would result in panicked running and people being trampled to death.
The same thinking does not apply to the exercise of free speech today. People who shout hate speech, threats, or prods to do harm are not arrested for what they said, no matter the outcome.
Our legal system values and supports freedom of speech regardless of the degree to which it offends social mores or common decency. I recall the ACLU, a non-profit legal organization that defends rights on many levels, defended a Neo-Nazi group’s right to march through a Jewish neighborhood in Skokie, Ill., in 1977.
Holocaust survivors lived in the neighborhood.
At the time, I struggled with the concept of protecting intentional cruelty. In my world deliberately parading the memories of Nazis invading communities into the neighborhood was despicable.
I still struggle with the freedom to deliberately hurt, intimidate and/or threaten others in the name of free speech. How could the right intended to protect us in fact be used to rip open deep scars, create sorrow, and fear and disrupt another’s pursuit of happiness promised in the Declaration of Independence?
Skokie and other locales attempted to pass laws forbidding such demonstrations, but none succeeded in the end. The rationale for allowing the hate filled speech and demonstrations was any prohibition would open the possibility that allowing people to define what was acceptable speech could lead to repression of speech and public gatherings.
Sigh — yet another pretzel type of legal reasoning that paralyzes progress, in this case progression to civil behavior.
Fast forward to 2022, the popularity of hate speech has grown sufficiently to become a political strategy. Unfortunately, the humiliation of others draws a crowd just as stoning did in the uncivilized past. People were far too entertained by the name-calling antics of Donald Trump during the presidential election campaign of 2016 and following massive free media exposure, he was elected president.
Trump’s unexpected election was enabled by the press, who garnered ratings and sales by those who were entertained, those that were simple ambulance-chasers and those thrilled to have found kinship in Trump.
At risk of sounding elitist, I cannot understand the titters, giggles, whooping and clapping when a speaker calls someone else an S**O**B****. So seventh grade!
Hostile community environment
Government action has put controls and incentives for restraint on freedom of speech exercised as hate speech in a workplace. In 1986, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled a case involving sexual harassment in the workplace constituted employee discrimination.
“Hostile Work Environment” became a legitimate definition under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).
An employer can be fined by The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and possibility sued by the employee if harassment is proven. Harassment that makes one or more employees uncomfortable and worst case threatens another employee violates the act. Examples of harassment behaviors are using derogatory labels, posting photos that demean another sexually or ethnically, aggression, shaming and threatening punishment.
But, what about the same harassment occurring on public sidewalks, a hostile community environment? Law requires a distance be maintained between a woman walking into an women’s clinic that does abortions and the protester shouting “baby killer.” Does that make the harassment acceptable or right?
Supposedly, escalating harassment toward an individual in the public square can be reported by the individual to the police. That is, if the individual knows the identity of the harasser. Reporting and follow up can be a lonely process unless the community takes policy stands against bigotry and racism inhabiting the streets.
Anonymous threats arriving via social media, cell phones, landlines and U.S. mail are immune to restraining orders. We have an epidemic of people who think the appropriate response to anything they do not like is to leave messages threatening an individual’s life, in some cases the lives of their children and threatening women with rape.
Considerable sleuthing is required to find these perpetrators who are enabled by elected leaders who encourage hate speech and retribution by their own speech. They suffer fears and life disruption as much if not more than the harassed employee because they are alone without support of community expectations, policies, and sanctions. We must worry this problem exists and work to remove the power of intimidation.
What can be done? Can government establish community incentives like it did for employers? Probably not, for the reasons it has not been done already.
Communities can post signs that say “Be Kind” like Sequim has done.
This is a case where individuals can have influence.
We can stop electing adults who act like seventh-graders. We can be more selective in choosing our heroes and heroines. We can shun bullies and bullying. We can prod our faith leader to be outspoken in their condemnation of hate speech. We can be stewards of our own character and be models of decency. We can stop treating speech haters like normal people.
Bertha Cooper spent her career years in health care administration, program development and consultation Cooper and her husband have lived in Sequim more than 20 years. Reach her at email@example.com.