Warrior fights for freer speech

March 13, 1998

Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union and professor of law at New York Law School, is a defender of free speech. Absolutely and uncompromisingly.

"I defend hate speech even when it is aimed against me. I guess that means that I am a true free speech diehard," she told Free Speech Wars, a three-day festival held in London this month.

Organised by the Institute of Contemporary Arts and LM magazine, Free Speech Wars explored how free speech relates to film and theatre, academia and journalism, comedy and music.

But in dealing with "hate speech" Professor Strossen's key-note address raised a thorny question for academics: how can those who are committed to equality of opportunity, to ridding society of prejudice, defend speech that is unashamedly discriminatory?

Hate speech is an apt term in two senses, said Professor Strossen. "First, the speech expresses hateful thoughts towards various individuals or groups and, second, we human rights advocates in turn hate those thoughts. But that hatred does not justify suppressing the speech."

Campaigning against discrimination and for equality relies on freedom of speech. "If we can't raise our voices on behalf of those who are oppressed on the grounds of race or religion or gender or sexual orientation then we cannot protect and promote the rights and freedoms of those individuals," she said.

This is one of the reasons why the ACLU has always taken an absolutist view on free speech. "During our 78 years we have sought to defend all fundamental freedoms for all people," said Professor Strossen. The ACLU will defend "even speech that expresses bias or prejudice or advocates violence or discrimination - the speech that most of us now refer to as hate speech".

Debate about hate speech in the United States has been most prominent on university campuses, with clashes over speech codes prohibiting staff and students from using racist, sexist and homophobic language.

Professor Strossen said such codes were dangerous. They were often token gestures and were used against those people they are designed to protect. "Whenever law against hate speech has been enforced the major target of those rules was minority students, or those speaking on behalf of minority students," she said. "They bear the brunt even though they think it's to protect them."

Professor Strossen's solution to hate speech is straightforward. "More speech not less speech is the best response to ideas you don't agree with."

It means confronting controversial thoughts and language but, so long as inequality and prejudice exists, "you do not have a right not to be offended," she said.

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