Group Defamation and Freedom of Speech: The Relationship between Language and Violence

Group Defamation and Freedom of Speech: The Relationship between Language and Violence

Group Defamation and Freedom of Speech: The Relationship between Language and Violence

Group Defamation and Freedom of Speech: The Relationship between Language and Violence

Synopsis

This volume, an updated collection of essays from a Hofstra University conference on group defamation, provides a cross-disciplinary examination of hate speech. Beginning with the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in R.A.V. v. St. Paul, the volume analyzes the problem from historical, anthropological, comparative-legal, and American constitutional law perspectives.

Excerpt

Monroe H. Freedman

Eric M. Freedman

Few if any countries are free of hatred and oppression directed toward one or more minority groups. The United States is no exception. More than twenty years ago, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders issued its Report to the President of the United States. The commission concluded that our country was moving toward 'two societies, separate and unequal." New York Times columnist Tom Wicker wrote at the time that the report presented a picture of "one nation divided." Years later, Mr. Wicker had occasion to observe what we are today "a community still deeply divided on racial lines -- blacks and whites in fear of one another, judging each other with hatred and contempt."

Racism is not a new phenomenon in the United States, nor have blacks been the only victims. The Constitution itself protected the institution of slavery. American Indians have suffered genocide. Asian-Americans have frequently been the object of oppression, including the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Discrimination against other ethnic and religious minorities has been pervasive in our society and has reached the point of mob attacks, lynchings, and other violence throughout our history. Women, too, have been the victims of various forms of oppression, including violence.

A particular speech or series of speeches attacking a minority group may not present a clear and present danger of violence. We know from experience, however, that group defamation can create a social climate that is receptive to and encourages hatred and oppression. If a minority group can be made to appear less than human, deserving of punishment, or a threat to the general community, oppression of that minority may well follow.

We know also that language itself can hurt, that there are words that, by their very utterance, inflict injury. Language can demean one's sense of dignity. Language can induce insecurity and fear. Language can cause palpable physical reactions. When the message is violent, language can itself be a form of violence.

Nevertheless, the criminalization of group defamation raises serious questions of both policy and constitutionality. Along with the Equal Protection Clause, the greatest safeguard of minority rights in this country is the First . . .

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