I recently accompanied my son to his first university open day. He wants to study politics and was inspired by the lecturers he met. Unfortunately, just before we left, he picked up a copy of the student newspaper and his excitement turned to disappointment. A controversial YouTube star he’s interested in had been invited to speak on campus, but the debate had been cancelled.
Hours before the event was to take place, the students’ union decreed that a neutral chairperson was needed, and no one suitable could be found. There had been no recourse to the law and no charges of hate speech. No doubt those convinced that campus free speech controversies are fabricated will shrug and say this is bureaucracy, not censorship. But a speaker some wanted to hear, a debate that had been months in the planning, was halted.
In Hate, Nadine Strossen brings wisdom garnered from decades at the forefront of arguing for civil liberties to bear on the polarised and often inflammatory discussion of free speech. Her central contention, that hate speech laws are “at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive”, is well made. She argues that hate speech should be met by more speech, “counterspeech”, rather than legal restrictions.
Universities could provide the ideal space for young minds to hone arguments and practise counterspeech, but too often students encounter restrictions rather than opportunities to speak freely. Strossen takes apart the commonly accepted view that words are violence and exposes how censorship serves to close down particular points of view, thereby distorting debate and violating our individual democratic rights.
Hate offers a forensic account of hate speech laws across the globe. It shows the danger of overreach, of laws targeting the very people they are meant to protect and contributing to the creation of “free speech martyrs”, whose ideas often gain a wider audience as a result of being outlawed. This criticism of the law is necessary: using the police to monitor bad words on social media rather than catch criminals is appalling.
Yet Strossen’s critique can make it appear as if threats to free speech arise from the way the law is put into practice, rather than from hate speech legislation itself. At the outset, she acknowledges that hate is subjective; anyone can be both accused of and subjected to hatred based on their personal characteristics and beliefs. But ultimately, in her challenge to the law as it currently stands, she gives ground to the idea that “hate speech” is an identifiable category.
In accepting the existence of hate speech, and considering how to challenge it without recourse to the law, therefore, Strossen ends up supporting some of the key ways in which censorship occurs today. She celebrates student activism, overlooking how claims of offence and demands for censorship have become the currency of today’s campus politics.
Furthermore, she would like education to help people “resist the potentially negative effects of hateful speech”. But this assumes that the role of the teacher is to inculcate correct views and that bad ideas should be met by psychological immunity, rather than intellectual and political challenge. The exercise of free speech risks becoming an opportunity for moral correction instead of a clash of competing ideas.
Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship
By Nadine Strossen
Oxford University Press, 232pp, £16.99
Published 28 June 2018