You Can’t Say That

From The New York Times Books:

‘The Harm in Hate Speech,’ by Jeremy Waldron

Published: June 22, 2012


By Jeremy Waldron
292 pp. Harvard University Press. $26.95.

In his engaging new book, “The Harm in Hate Speech,” the legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron urges Americans to reconsider that tradition. Although he regards it as “unlikely” that hate speech legislation “will ever pass constitutional muster in America,” he hopes to persuade Americans to take more seriously the damage such speech does, and to overcome the “knee-jerk, impulsive and thoughtless” arguments that, he says, “often” characterize American debates on the issue.

Waldron begins with the premise that in a “well-ordered society” not only must all people be protected by the law; they are entitled to live in confidence of this protection. “Each person . . . should be able to go about his or her business, with the assurance that there will be no need to face hostility, violence, discrimination or exclusion by others.” Hate speech undermines this essential public good. “When a society is defaced with anti-Semitic signage, burning crosses and defamatory racial leaflets,” Waldron says, this assurance of security “evaporates. A vigilant police force and a Justice Department may still keep people from being attacked or excluded,” but the objects of hate speech are deprived of the assurance that the society regards them as people of equal dignity.

Even when the hate speech comes from isolated fringe elements, themselves despised by a majority of the public, Waldron tells us, we should not regard the harm as insignificant. “Precisely because the public good that is under attack is provided in a general, diffuse and implicit way,” he explains, “the flare-up of a few particular incidents can have a disproportionate ­effect.”

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