I, like most children of liberal Jewish parents born on the coasts, have long held the first amendment to the constitution to be sacrosanct: just barely below the 10 commandments and slightly higher than a hot pastrami with brown mustard. It is that important. And it was the 1st Amendment ‘Freedom of Speech’ that was always the most cherished of those rights.
But recent events have started to make me question this deep-seated belief. I’ve started to consider whether maybe it’s time we restricted free speech. Let me explain.
I have always thought that the free, unfettered exchange of opinions and ideas was what made America so great: it spawned great writers and thinkers, let creativity and individuality flourish, and is essential to that other great freedom that makes the United States so great for Judaism, the freedom of religion. And of course, those kinds of healthy exchanges of ideas and beliefs, the disagreements of opinion that are critical to the argy-bargy of political life, those are fine. I’m not talking about those.
I’m talking about hate speech.
I first thought about this when reading about an English Premier League soccer player who collapsed on the pitch a year ago; an ignorant racist fan took to twitter and said all the ugly things that ignorant racists do. And Britain gave him 56 days in jail. At first I thought: how can they do that? Thinking about it a few days later, I asked a different question: why don’t we do that?
The incident reminded me of something that I attempt to ignore quite frequently, and I’m guessing you do it too: there’s a lot of really horrible stuff on the internet. From trolls in the comments of your favorite websites to twitter hashtags of despicable hate, I find myself stumbling upon things online I don’t want or need to see. So fine, you say. Don’t read it; move along to another webpage. Don’t read the comments at the bottom of an article on Israel. It isn’t hurting anyone.
Except that it is. Speech is power. Regular, frequent hate speech makes people think such speech is normal, or acceptable. It validates racism and the idiots that spew it. It makes the internet less safe for those of us who want to have real dialogue about serious things. Internet hate speech is like the busted car alarm shrieking over your nice lunchtime conversation- it overpowers everything and ruins the discussion until you just pack up and leave. If I wanted to follow the NBA Finals on twitter, for instance, I have to navigate these tweets about the little boy who sang the Star Spangled Banner. Man, can’t I just go online and read about LeBron versus Tim Duncan?
Hate speech empowers acts of hate. It is for exactly that reason that Germany bans symbols, language or imagery around the Nazis, England has made hate speech a crime, and French Jewish students have sued Twitter for not restricting a recent hashtag, #unbonjuif (‘a good jew’) in which the sentences were completed ‘… a dead jew’, or ‘a burned Jew’, or worse.
Speech, when used for ill, can lead to people doing bad things. American law already recognizes this too: ‘incitement to riot’ is punishable by up to one year in jail. Using hateful speech in conjunction with another criminal act (violence, vandalism, etc.) can trigger additional penalties as part of nearly nation-wide hate crime legislation.
However, both of these examples assumes that taking to twitter and calling someone a racist name is permitted ‘freedom of expression’, while doing it and then punching them in face is a racially motivated crime. It also assumes that racially abusing someone online is harmless, when in reality, it actually restricts free speech: it intimidates religious minorities and people of color, and potentially pushes us out of the conversation in favor of those who say and think whatever they want, no matter how scary or inappropriate it may be.
The freedom to advocate religiously-based hatred played a role in radicalizing the Tsarnaev brothers to attack the Boston marathon. The internet has been a breeding ground for Islamic extremism and White supremacist groups since forever: the ADL and Southern Poverty Law Center have devoted great resources to keeping an eye on these and other hate-speech aficionados. But in all of these scenarios, you can spout whatever anti-gay anti-black whatever, until whenever. But if one, or ten people read your posts and decide to bomb a church or beat up some queers at their school because of something they saw online, the writer is not responsible because, hey, free speech.
Judaism cares very much about the things we say. Two major areas of Jewish law, Lashon HaRa (Malicious speech) and Rechilut (gossip) are expressly forbidden. The Chofetz Chaim, a 19th and 20th century rabbi in Europe, wrote expansively on the concept LaShon HaRa, delineating hundreds of guidelines to teach us how to watch what we say. He was so punctilious that one of his rules was that one should not compliment a person in absentia to someone else, because it may lead the person you are speaking with to disagree with you and say something not nice about them. This is not a frequent problem on the internet sites I most often visit. Another principle that might more directly apply to my question of hate speech and the internet: the Chofetz Chaim maintains that one who is in the presence of ill speech should stop the offender from saying the hurtful thing.
Another example of Judaism’s regard for the importance and power of speech is in the ‘Al Chet’ prayer of Yom Kippur. We strike our chest and recite 44 categories of sins we have committed in the past year. Nine of the 44 are sins of speech. We read this list of sins in the plural tense: ‘we have spoken foolishly’, ‘we have spoken hurtfully’. And by not combating hate speech, perhaps we as an American society ensure that these sins will continue unabated.
Clearly, restricting free speech isn’t something we should take lightly. I’ve read ‘1984’. I see the news about China and Russia imprisoning political dissidents. People have the right to say all kinds of things, including unpopular things and things with which I strongly disagree. But it is hard to ignore that a tiny lunatic fringe has been empowered to use the internet to be really, really awful. And it doesn’t have to be this way.
I’m not saying I’ve got it all figured out; I don’t know what the exactly the rules should be, or where the lines should be drawn between something that is mean or distasteful but not something that should be punished or expunged from the web, and something that is a clear act of unacceptable hate speech. I don’t know if would be better to mandate websites like Facebook, Twitter, and the Daily Beast comments section to police themselves more carefully, or whether we should follow the UK’s example and potentially imprison racially abusive offenders. I am saying: its time to seriously consider whether it is OK for anyone to say anything online, while we close our eyes and quickly scroll past it and hope that it goes away.