“His response was to fight it with the only weapons at hand—passive resistance and open displays of contempt.” ― Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan
MAY 19, 2015 BY KEN WHITE
American journalists and pundits rely upon vigorous free speech, but are not reliable supporters of it. They both instruct and reflect their fickle audience.
It’s easy to spot overt calls for censorship from the commentariat. Those have become more common in the wake of both tumultuous events (like the violence questionably attributed to the “Innocence of Muslims” video, or Pamela Geller’s “Draw Muhammad” contest) and mundane ones (like fraternity brothers recorded indulging in racist chants).
But it’s harder to detect the subtle pro-censorship assumptions and rhetorical devices that permeate media coverage of free speech controversies. In discussing our First Amendment rights, the media routinely begs the question — it adopts stock phrases and concepts that presume that censorship is desirable or constitutional, and then tries to pass the result off as neutral analysis. This promotes civic ignorance and empowers deliberate censors.
Fortunately, this ain’t rocket science. Americans can train themselves to detect and question the media’s pro-censorship tropes. I’ve collected some of the most pervasive and familiar ones. This post is designed as a resource, and I’ll add to it as people point out more examples and more tropes.
When you see the media using these tropes, ask yourself: what normative message is the author advancing, and does it have any basis in law?
Trope One: “Hate Speech”
Example: “hate speech is excluded from protection. dont [sic] just say you love the constitution . . . read it.” CNN Anchor Chris Cuomo, on Twitter, February 6, 2015.
Example: “I do not know if American courts would find much of what Charlie Hebdo does to be hate speech unprotected by the Constitution, but I know—hope?—that most Americans would.” Edward Schumacher-Matos, NPR, February 6, 2015.
In the United States, “hate speech” is an argumentative rhetorical category, not a legal one.
“Hate speech” means many things to many Americans. There’s no widely accepted legal definition in American law. More importantly, as Professor Eugene Volokh explains conclusively, there is no “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment. Americans are free to impose social consequences on ugly speech, but the government is not free to impose official sanctions upon it. In other words, even if the phrase “hate speech” had a recognized legal definition, it would still not carry legal consequences.
This is not a close or ambiguous question of law.
When the media frames a free speech story as an inquiry into whether something is “hate speech,” it’s asking a question of morals or taste poorly disguised as a question of law. It’s the equivalent of asking “is this speech rude?”
Trope Two: “Like shouting fire in a crowded theater”
Example: ” There is no freedom to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.” Prof. Thane Rosenbaum, Daily Beast, January 30, 2014….
Follow the link to learn more….connect the dots!