Opinion: It’s Not Within Our First Amendment Right to Shout Down a Speaker
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote in the 1907 book “The Friends of Voltaire.”
This quote is often cited when referencing the principle of free speech. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees an individual’s right to free expression without fear of reprisal from the government. With cases such as Ben Shapiro, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Richard Spencer, there is a growing desire to silence those with views we disagree with or find harmful. Protesters attempting to shut down speech only serves to damage the protestors intellectually. In addition, it can make otherwise relatable causes appear violent and intolerant.
University at Albany, a state-funded institution, cannot censor speech without trampling on the First Amendment. There are exceptions to free speech, but hate speech is not one of them. In fact, the Supreme Court has found time and again that hate speech is free speech. In the case of Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), the Supreme Court protected the speech of Clarence Brandenburg, a KKK leader, and established the standard of “imminent lawless action,” which holds that speech cannot be censored unless it advocates action that is both unlawful and likely to occur. The Supreme Court upheld this precedent when it reversed the conviction of an antiwar protester in Hess v. Indiana (1973), when the Supreme Court struck down a “bias-motivated crime ordinance” in R.A.V. v. St. Paul (1992), and again when the Supreme Court protected the speech of the Westboro Baptist Church in Snyder v. Phelps (2011).
In the situation with Yiannopoulos last February, crowds sought to silence Milo through the use of force. Such an act is an example of “the heckler’s veto,” a situation where a person who disagrees with a speaker is able to somehow silence them. John Stuart Mill once said, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that” (1859). He believed that to be fully informed one must listen to the opinions of their adversaries.
In the United States, the law protects speech even when it is outrageous and offensive. Even if the law didn’t protect such speech, people should still be encouraged to occasionally and peacefully engage with speech they find deeply offensive for the sake of their own identity.
Engaging peacefully is the key point. When protesters descended on Berkeley in February, Milo Yiannopoulos appeared to be the victim in the situation. At the recent Richard Spencer speech in Florida it seemed that the added security was not to protect students from Spencer but to protect Spencer and supporters from possible violent protesters.
Andrew Young, a former civil rights activist and
ambassador to the United Nations, said in a Washington Post article, “White supremacy is a sickness. You don’t get angry with sick people; you work to heal the system.” Changing hearts and minds does not begin with attacking the opposition physically, nor does it begin by silencing them.
Barbara Reynolds, an ordained minister and former Civil Rights activist, recalled the activists in the 1960s by saying, “Activists confronted white mobs and police with dignity and decorum, sometimes dressing in church clothes and kneeling in prayer during protests to make a clear distinction between who was evil and who was good.”
So before you seek to silence someone weigh your options. Do you want to ignore them and simply refuse to lend them the spotlight? Do you want to engage critically with someone diametrically opposed to your own viewpoints? Do you seek to change hearts and minds to make the world a better place? Do you want to grow as an individual? Or, do you want to transform men like Richard Spencer into a martyr for free speech, demonizing your own causes in the process? The choice is yours.