Flyers were left on the doorsteps of homes in Rockville Centre and Oceanside last week, filled with vile hate claiming, among other things, that President Biden was in league with a “Jewish cabal,” perpetuating the overused trope that Jews control the country.
It was repugnant. It was disgusting. Every one of us should condemn what was found on those pamphlets, but at the same time we must take caution not to entertain thoughts about outright banning them.
It’s an unfortunate side effect of the First Amendment, but an important one all the same. That freedom of expression protects all speech from government censorship — including “the thought that we hate,” as iconic U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once said.
It’s a right that protects us not from one another, but from the government, without fear of interference, censorship or restraint. It doesn’t protect speech we might agree with — if we agreed with it, there would be no need to write laws protecting it. Instead, the First Amendment is designed to protect speech we don’t agree with.
Even hate speech. That doesn’t mean we, as a collective, can’t object to it. When we start talking about criminal prosecution, however, we need to be wary of creating barriers that would keep people from expressing themselves. Sure, in this case, we would be curbing something we can universally agree needs to be squelched — those antisemitic flyers — and it’s completely understandable why our elected leaders would consider it. But at the same time, we risk setting a precedent that could silence other speech — especially speech we may agree with.
And that’s why it’s important to speak out against hate speech — to call it out for what it is — but not to demand that our government put an end to it.
“Our history shows the same First Amendment that protects hateful, racist speech can be — and has been — used by civil rights advocates to protect historically vulnerable communities,” said Lee Rowland, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Rowland points to a case in the 1960s in which the U.S. Supreme Court sided with an avowed Ku Klux Klan member who talked about ridding the world of Jews and Black people. So long as there was not an immediate and specific risk of actual violence to a real person, his words were protected by the First Amendment.
It was certainly enough to make most of us want to rethink the Bill of Rights. That is, until a few years later, when civil rights leader Charles Evers called for a boycott of racist, white-owned businesses, promising to “break the damn neck” of anyone who crossed that boycott line.
Those businesses sued Evers and the NAACP, claiming incitement. But the Supreme Court, harking back to the case with the KKK member, ruled in Evers’s favor.
We look with disgust at courts protecting speech we feel has no place in society, but because of those rulings — because of the First Amendment — we have the ability to speak up and condemn such speech, and call it what it is. It’s a freedom so few other countries have, and the cost is that, yes, speech we don’t like — speech we may despise — is protected.
The flyers distributed to our neighbors in Rockville Centre and Oceanside were clearly antisemitic. We should find out who did it. Call them out. Explain why those words were clearly hateful. But we also must tread carefully when it comes to finding criminal solutions. That’s one slippery slope we must avoid, because the next speech that could be censored could be your own.