Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Harm in Hate-Speech Laws

by David Gordon

Mises Daily

May 30, 2012

In many countries, though not in the United States, laws prohibit "hate speech." Those who, in Jeremy Waldron's opinion, uncritically elevate the benefits of free speech over competing values oppose hate-speech laws; but Waldron thinks that a strong case can be made in their favor. (Waldron thinks that there are "very few First Amendment Absolutists" [p. 144] who oppose all regulation of speech; but he thinks that many other First Amendment scholars are unduly critical of hate speech regulations.) Waldron is a distinguished legal and political philosopher, but the arguments that he advances in defense of hate-speech laws, taken on their own terms, do not seem to me very substantial.

Hate speech, Waldron tells, us, consists of "publications which express profound disrespect, hatred, and vilification for the members of minority groups" (p. 27). "Speech," it should be noted, is used here in an extended sense; and it is the more lasting written material, movies, posters, etc, that principally concern Waldron rather than speeches, verbal threats, or imprecations, though the latter are not excluded. Many countries ban such speech:
The United Kingdom has long outlawed the publication of material calculated to stir up racial hatred. In Germany it is a serious crime to display the swastika or other Nazi symbols. Holocaust denial is punished in many countries. The British author David Irving … was imprisoned until recently in Austria for this offense. (p. 29)
One way to respond to this would be to assess hate-speech laws from the Rothbardian position that I deem to be correct. This would make for a very short review. For Rothbard, free-speech questions reduce to issues of property rights. If, for example, someone writes "Muslims get out!" on a wall, a Rothbardian would ask, "Whose wall is it?" If the author of the message wrote on his own wall, he acted within his rights; if, lacking permission, he wrote on someone else's wall, he violated the owner's property rights. People have no general right of restraint against insult. Furthermore, you do not own your reputation, since this consists of the ideas other people have of you, and you cannot own other people's thoughts. For that reason, laws against libel and slander are for the Rothbardian ruled out. Waldron asks, If laws forbid libel of a person, why not laws against group libel as well? A more un-Rothbardian argument could hardly be imagined.