Freedom of speech appears to be one of the most fundamental rights of the U.S citizens. This provision is protected by the U.S Constitution through the First Amendment of the American Constitution; therefore, it guarantees the U.S citizens with freedom of expression. The amendment states, “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech or of the press” (Germani par. 1). However, hate speech is regarded to as a legal crime because; it interferes with other provisions in the U.S Bill of Rights. As a result, there have been numerous enactments carried out by the U.S Legislature to protect the loyalty of the U.S citizens through expression. In regard to the First Amendment of the U.S Constitution, an individual can be convicted of hate speech crime in circumstances where one’s statements evoke violence. Moreover, statements, which constitute threats to other people or the Government, are regarded to as hate speech crime. However, conviction of an individual for crimes related to hate speech requires legal approaches to justify the individual’s breach of the law. Huhn states, “Even in cases where it is clear that a person is threatening violence.., the person may be criminally prosecuted only if the law in question is carefully drawn so that it applies only in appropriate cases” (par. 1).
Globally, freedom of speech has been the focus of National Governments and international Human Rights Agencies to uphold liberty of the global community and facilitate harmony in the society. However, the violation of freedom of speech by different social groups or individuals seems to have extended the limits of freedom of speech and, leading diverse definitions of hate speech, which are believed to cause unfathomable harm to the society. Pillay argues that, “In recent years, the world has witnessed a number of incidents involving hate speech at times with wide- ranging and global repercussions” (par. 1).
The First Amendment protects the citizens’ freedom of speech through outlining the limits of the provision. Therefore, any violation to the provisions of this constitutional right is referred to as hate speech. Surprisingly, the U.S judicial system has been experiencing immense challenges in interpreting hate speech because; there is no universal definition of hate speech. Huhn claims that defining hate speech is relatively difficult because; “What’s ‘funny’ to one person is offensive to another, and people disagree about what kinds of behavior cross the line from poking fun, to fair political commentary, to expressions of scorn and contempt, to threats or incitement to violence” (par. 2). The current debate, over whether hate speech should be regarded as a crime, seems to have aroused unprecedented controversy on the legitimacy of using constitutional provisions to punish perpetrators of hate speech. Therefore, this research paper will give an overview of freedom of speech, especially with regard to hate speech, in the United States of America.
Historical Roots and the Associated Social Issues
Notably, the historical background of hate speech can be traced along the winding path to freedom of speech, in which prominent personalities challenged the U.S legal system vehemently to facilitate for the inclusion of freedom of speech as one of the fundamental human rights, in the Bill of Rights. However, it is worth noting that freedom of speech and expression of an individual’s ideas was entirely unacceptable throughout the Middle Ages because; people’s rights were defined according to the literal interpretation of the canonical literature. Moreover, the role of building the nation and upholding loyalty in the society were regarded to as political goals; thus, freedom of speech was suppressed. In the Middle Ages, critical thinkers and philosophers were not entitled to the fundamental rights because; they were not recognized as human beings (Germani par. 1).
Later in the 17th Century, the issue of freedom of expression emerged, although the earliest incidences seemed to suppress expressive freedom but, it is believed to be the beginning of the struggle for loyalty. From a philosophical perspective, the earliest convicts of ‘hate speech’ laid straight, the way to the freedom of expression. Some of the most prominent personalities who contributed significantly to the struggle for the freedom of expression include Galileo Galilei, John Peter Zenger and Thomas Jefferson. However, the imprisonment of H.L. Mencken, The American Mercury journalist, in 1926 exemplifies the extensive evolution of freedom of speech and, the unprecedented interpretation of hate speech, or rather, the controversy over the limitations of the freedom of speech. Therefore, a concise highlight of the contribution of such prominent individuals provides the historical roots of hate speech, especially with regard to the freedom of expression.
In 1616, Galileo Galilei produced his postulates regarding the relationship of the sun and the universe, which were regarded by clerics and the Christian church in general as a significant infallibility. As a result, Galileo Galilei was barred from promoting his idea on the universe; thus, he was martyred by the society.
Later in the 18th Century, freedom of speech was eventually recognized as a significant protection against a despotic government of the Colonial America. This occurred, in 1734 when John Peter Zenger, a Colonial newspaper publisher opposed the policies of William Cosby, the then New York Governor using his journalistic power. This incident sparked unprecedented outcry from the Colonial American scholars, especially after the acquitting of Zengler, in 1735 on grounds that ‘truth is a defense against libel’ (Germani par. 4). As a result, the colonial intellects pushed for the inclusion of the freedom of speech as one of the fundamental provisions of the Bill of Rights. However, it is worth noting that inclusion of this rights in the Bill of Rights caused significant flaws in the U.S legal framework because; there were no clear-cut limitations of the law leading to the enactment of the Sedition Act of 1789, which granted freedom of expression to the American citizens. The precepts of Act stated, “if any person shall write, print, utter" opinions that "defame the said government… [They] shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding two years” (Germani par. 6). Despite the terms of the Sedition Act of 1789, the decision of President Thomas Jefferson to pardon all those who were convicted of the Act was perceived to be a significant move towards justice, especially with regard to the struggle for protection against government interference with the citizens’ freedom.
Landmark Ruling on Hate Speech Cases
Notably, the issue of hate speech, in the U.S appears to be one of the cross-cutting social issues because; it touches all individuals and social groups and there are no social problems associated with hate speech because; the law defines an individual’s constitutional rights. Evidence to this aspect can be provided by the previous cases of hate speech. The landmark rulings by the U.S Supreme Court include Terminiello v. Chicago (1949), R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul (1992), Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), National Socialist Party v. Skokie (1977) and the Virginia v. Black (2003) Supreme Court cases. Recently, in 2011, the Snyder v. Phelps Supreme Court case, the Westboro's right to picket was upheld on grounds that Westboro Baptist Church’s contribution to the public discourse was relatively negligible after Justice John Roberts ruled out that the church members’ presence at the venue was legal (Hudson par. 3).
Today, hate speech is regarded to as the contravention of the fundamental precepts of the U.S Bill of Rights, especially with regard to nation building and loyalty. However, hate speech cases are currently on the rise.
In a brief conclusion, hate speech, in the United States is determined by the U.S Judicial system and it is punishable under the U.S Constitution. However, freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment. The amendment states, “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech or of the press” (U.S Courts par. 1).
Today, there is no problem associated to the law against hate speech, although some convicts express discontent with their vindication. Mill remarks, “If liberty of expression is not highly valued, as has often been the case, there is no problem: freedom of expression is simply curtailed in favor of other values” (par. 2). Therefore, hate speech, in the U.S is not regarded to as a social problem, but rather, a legal issue, although freedom of speech encompasses unprecedented controversy when it is highly valued in favor of other social values.
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