Panel dissects future of free speech

Olivia Gomez and Elizabeth Stoeger

Two prominent voices in the African American and LGBT communities, respectively, engaged in civil discourse on free speech, where they disagreed on the regulation of hate speech but found common ground when they discussed the First Amendment.

Leading scholar in critical race theory and UCLA law professor Cheryl Harris joined The Atlantic editor Jonathan Rauch for “A Conversation about Equality and Speech” in Ice Auditorium. The almost two-hour long event, one of a handful that celebrated Constitution Day, was co-moderated by professors Nick Buccola and Emina Musanovic and was followed by a reception.

Buccola emphasized the importance of calling the Thursday afternoon event a conversation rather than a debate, and expressed hope that it would be a “model for the way we have conversations on this campus.”

After addressing the audience, Buccola gave the floor to Harris and Rauch, who each spoke for about 10 minutes to introduce their arguments. Their conversation turned from Supreme Court cases to the internet, but was based largely in their disagreement over regulating hate speech, especially in relation to minorities.

Rauch recalled the history of the LGBT rights movement. In the 1960s, homosexuality was classified as a medical disease and men could be arrested for engaging in homosexual activities.

Hate speech against the gay community ran rampant during this time but Rauch argued that hate speech ultimately did serve a somber purpose within the movement.

“The hate speech helped us because it identified who the opposition was. It allowed us to rebut the opposition and it made us look very good by comparison,” Rauch said. “We were talking about love, we were talking about dignity and equality, and they were talking about how we were all going to seduce their children and send the country to hell.”

Rauch argued that minorities don’t need to be safeguarded. “Please don’t protect us. We don’t need protection; we need the opportunity to answer back.”  

Conversely, Harris was interested in “unfreezing the conversation” and finding the line between speech that is simply offensive and speech that incites violence.

She said hate speech disparages those who are being spoken about and bars them from participating not only in the conversation but also the environment.

Rauch took issue with this and questioned what kind of speech is so hateful and debilitating that it keeps people from participating, saying he “will not be the victim.”

People need to move beyond discussions of their individual experiences, Harris responded. She reminded the audience that the four people on stage were shaped by different experiences and came from different places of privilege, an important factor that Rauch did not consider.

“It’s not the case that everybody has equal voice, equal access, equal power, nor do all people face the same dangers or myths in exercising free expression,” she said.

Those differences in power determine who can speak back against hate speech and when. Theoretically, Harris said, people can respond, but will they?

“I’m concerned about the ways in which the deep inequalities that we face do not enable participation in a dialogue that moves us forward.”

This is where Harris and Rauch’s opinions diverged. Harris argued that uneven power structures prevent certain groups from defending themselves.

“It’s not the case that everybody has equal voice, equal access, equal power, nor do all people face the same dangers or myths in exercising free expression,” she said.

She took a hard line against “First Amendment absolutism,” criticizing those who argue for free speech for its own sake. People should understand why they think free speech is important if they are going to defend it.

Rauch agreed that there was “too much hiding behind the First Amendment” but was also against laws abridging free speech.

“Trying to legislate [hateful ideas] away with some regime of censorship or court control is like trying to reduce global warming by breaking the thermometers.” Rauch said. “It is not going to deal with the underlying idea” but instead make it more difficult to pinpoint these ideas.

Rauch questioned Harris about how she might like to see the law deal with free speech in the future but Harris said the question was skipping a vital step.

We are still not drawing the line clearly enough between speech that expresses hatred and speech that incites it. “I’m not at all sure that we’ve got it right,” Harris said.