There is a lot of confusion these days about free speech
vs hate speech, including in the minds of the ACLU, who
are defending, of all people, Fred Phelps and the Westboro
Baptist Church because of an old-fashioned, misguided lack
of understanding that free speech does not include hate
Many people mistakenly believe that all speech is free in
this country, but it is not. The founders of this coutry
rapidly saw the ways in which speech could be harmful, and
made laws about harmful speech:
If I say I’m going to kill you, that is threatening, and it
is against the law in this country.
If I own a bakery, and go around town saying that my competitor’s
bread is full of worms in order to try to drive her out of
business, that is slander, and that is illegal.
If I own a tabloid, and make up a nasty story about a Hollywood
star that is so vile that no one will ever want to see his
movies again, in order to sell papers, that is libel, and
that is illegal.
If you spent hours writing something, and I steal your words
and present them as my own, that is plagarism, and that is
It used to be that only straight white men had power, and they
could say whatever they wanted to whoever they wanted. But as
other groups have achieved some measure of power, it has
become clear that words hurt and words kill in other ways than
those described above.
On April 6, 2009, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, age 11, committed
suicide. He was being teased and taunted at school on a daily
basis for being gay. His mother pleaded with the school every
week to do something, but nothing was done. That was the fourth
time that year a middle-school-aged child suffered such bullying
and committed suicide. And with the Internet, cyber-bullying
and cyber-harrassment have become possible, and people feel
free to say even worse things through anonymity than they would
to someone’s face.
But with all the suicides, and suicide rates in the bisexual and transgender communities are the highest of all, it has become clear that these deadly words cannot be ignored. Cyber-bullying is now illegal in Australia, with a $300,000 fine, and is illegal in several states. Hate speech is illegal on most Internet sites, so Fred Phelps has his own servers, so no one can shut him down. So the ACLU is defending someone who could not even post a video on YouTube.
Even as far back as 1996, the brave young people of
GLSEN decided to stand up to hate speech and bullying in their schools, and created the first Day of Silence. The idea has now spread widely, and in 2008 hundreds of thousands of students in more than 8,000 schools participated. For ideas about how you can participate, please see: