People can say stupid things. Some people say stupid things frequently, and others may say things with the intent to inflame or offend certain other people. Especially with that latter group, it may seem that it would be reasonable, whether for the preservation of public order or peace, or to protect groups of people from verbal persecution, to use the law to put a stop to the kind of speech or literature that demeans or ridicules people or portrays them in a false light. Some might even suggest that not doing so would be ignoring the right to privacy or freedom of religion, expression, etc., by creating an environment where a group of people may feel oppressed simply because of their race, beliefs, lifestyles or whatever else.
While people are rightly entitled to legal action against personal slander, libel, and defamation, we must be clear about what kind of proclamations do and do not fall within those categories. It is illegal to say something false about a particular person that damages his reputation or costs him financially. It is not illegal to say something true about a person that damages his reputation or costs him financially.
What else does not qualify as slander or libel is offensive speech or speech that demeans a group of people. If it did, there’d be a line of ex-comedians at the unemployment office. And what even more emphatically does not qualify as slander is the expression of beliefs or the expressed disagreement with someone else’s point of view or way of life.
In England on September 5, Rob Hughes, a street preacher in Basildon, was arrested after a lesbian woman accused him of engaging in hate speech against homosexuals. He was asked by police whether he had said that homosexuality was sinful, as if such a statement would have been hateful. He replied that although he had not said so that day, it was something he would say. Hughes was subsequently arrested, fingerprinted, and detained for seven hours.
Let’s be honest: the statement that homosexuality is sinful and morally wrong is 1) true, and 2) not in itself hateful. However, let us assume someone were saying hateful things against homosexuals. Assume someone were saying hateful things about anyone. What should be done about it? By government, nothing. The right to free speech must protect the peaceful expression of all view points, hateful or otherwise, or it is no guarantee of any right to speech at all. This is especially true since the definition of “hateful” is fluid and often subjective. In fact, the definition has changed so much in recent decades, that the word is now frequently used merely to intimidate and silence those whose views one does not like (see Rob Hughes case above.)
Free speech includes the right to say nasty things about religions, lifestyles, behaviors, beliefs. It means we protect the right of others to say things we do not like or that we find offensive, distasteful, ignorant, or inflammatory, because we ourselves, if we say anything of value, are sure to sound that way to someone else.
Understand, I believe very strongly in civility. I believe in expressing and exchanging ideas and arguments in a respectful, courteous way. But many people falsely believe that “respectful” means you must concede some degree of correctness or value in someone else’s beliefs (it does not). Also, civility is connected to attitude and manner, not to the ideas expressed and furthermore, wrongheaded, ignorant, and hateful speech must be corrected and ended only by citizens of society through counter-argumentation and persuasion and not by the state, because there is no telling what ideas the state may at any time consider “hateful.” Granted, the state must prosecute acts of violence. But if the state begins prosecuting the expression of certain ideas—regardless of how hateful some may think those ideas or how much some may not like them—then our right to free speech is gone with the wind. In a free society, the right to make hate speech must be protected.