[Editor’s note: This is a version of an article published in the Out of Frame Weekly, an email newsletter about the intersection of art, culture, and ideas. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Friday.]
Politicians were quick to call for restrictions on "hate speech" in response to the mass shooting that took the lives of 10 people at a Buffalo, New York grocery store—an attack that police are investigating as a hate crime.
Byron Brown, the mayor of Buffalo, called for "ending hate speech on the internet" in media interviews after the murders.
"Hate speech should not be considered free speech, and we have to put limits on the ability for people to spread hate through the internet and through social media," he told National Public Radio.
Kathy Hochul, the state's Democratic governor, echoed Brown's words. She told ABC: "We will protect the right to free speech, but there is a limit. There is a limit to what you can do and [...] hate speech is not protected."
“How these depraved ideas are fermenting on social media—it’s spreading like a virus now.”— This Week (@ThisWeekABC) May 15, 2022
After mass shooting at Buffalo supermarket in alleged hate crime, NY Gov. Kathy Hochul tells @GStephanopoulos that tech platforms must do more to stop hate speech. https://t.co/t7sUSnQUaE pic.twitter.com/9B8TVu37yO
These comments are starkly inaccurate. The Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed that so-called hate speech is protected under the First Amendment. While authorities can certainly take action against individuals for planning or threatening violence online, prohibiting people specifically for expressing ideological beliefs (even hateful ones) is a bad idea.
Has anyone who wants to ban hate speech ever laid out a coherent reason why doing so will in fact reduce the number of people who believe in violent ideologies? Is there any evidence that it will not simply push people who believe these ideas underground, where they will become more violent in reaction to their persecution?
Also, the ambiguous, subjective nature of banning certain ideas as hate speech lends itself to abuse—not just theoretically, but also in reality. You probably heard of people given convictions for Internet trolling, such as Scottish YouTuber Mark Meechan in 2018. In a world where one person's dark humor is another person's violent racism, such cases are common. But also, did you know that France and Canada have used hate speech laws to prohibit protests against the State of Israel?
Supporters of freedom of speech have stated time and time again why this liberty is necessary for these and other reasons. But supporters of censorship like Hochul and Brown by definition do not believe in conversation and do not want to have that discussion. They want to exploit tragedies like the Buffalo shooting to guilt their opponents into accepting their demands. Beating the gavel of shock and bloodshed, they call for revoking basic constitutional liberties.
This is an authoritarian mentality that we must wipe out—not by censoring it like they would do, of course—but by effectively communicating why it should be condemned.