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Rebuttal: No end to hate speech without action

Fine line between offense, defamation of human dignity

October 25, 2012

By Samah Assad

As the memory of “The Innocence of Muslims” film fades and fizzles away with time, discussions about hate speech and First Amendment rights continue to bubble on the surface.

In the Oct. 11 issue of the Cleveland Stater, readers responded to my viewpoint of the importance of regulating hate speech, noting that the government should not enforce hate speech codes because it has not and will not be applied equally in all instances.

This holds truth — the possibility for the government to regulate all types of hate speech for each religion without double standards is not always possible. There have been gruesome depictions of Jesus and Mary made and deemed “artistic expressions.” I am not condoning these types of offenses, nor am I condoning the acts of violence by extremists in the Middle East that occurred after the anti-Muslim film was released.

I believe I was misunderstood when I argued that hate speech should be regulated. In no way was I attempting to suppress individuals from First Amendment rights. I support individuals’ rights to freedom of speech, even if it results in offending the public.

However, I do not support defaming, ridiculing and singling out a population of people. Freedom of speech and hate speech are two different things, and the latter should be regulated.

To give up the fight of putting an end to hate speech merely because regulation has not been enforced equally in the past would be a weak thing to do. If individuals were to give up this easily, no positive change would ever find its place in society. Society will always be an unfair place as long as unfairness is promoted. Steps must be taken in order for hate speech codes to be enforced equally, which can be done by recognizing intention in speech. There is a clear distinction between offending someone and purposefully ridiculing and defaming a group of people’s human dignity.

While one can argue that the anti-Muslim film was a form of free speech, it fired insults solely at one group of people, demonstrating the intention that was to purposely ridicule one of the largest religious populations in the world. The time and context that the film was released — in the heat of political turmoil in the Middle East — was much too convenient to be considered as just a form of free speech that the filmmaker was simply exercising as an American citizen.

Jeremy Waldron, New York University law professor and author of “The Harm in Hate Speech,” argues that hate speech is toxic to a free society. In an interview with NPR, Waldron said that it is not just an issue of offensiveness to people who are the targeted audience. Hate speech creates fear, apprehension and reawakens old nightmares in people.

A prime example is when a neo-Nazi group planned to march in Skoki, Ill., a town home to many Holocaust survivors in the late 70s, carrying anti-Semitic signs. At first Skokie banned the march, but after the group fought their way through Supreme Court, they were granted the right to march based on First Amendment rights.

This form of speech was intended to stir hatred and was offered in a threatening, abusive and insulting way. The impact that this form of “free speech” had on the town, and the terror experienced as community members relived the racism they thought they had escaped is unimaginable. According to Waldron, this type of damage and defamation to human dignity should be restricted. As he stated, we all have nightmares of racism. As a person who has faced racism firsthand, those feelings rushed back like déjà vu after viewing “The Innocence of Muslims.” The film was ridiculously idiotic, but the intention of hurting people was what hurt me. This is not a feeling that any group of people deserves to experience, even on the platform of free speech.

There is no law to protect people from offense, but there should be a law to protect people’s human dignity. In that, there would be no double standards if society works in good faith to discourage all forms of hate speech.