During one of our lessons on poetry, I was speaking to my first period English class about which kinds of work constitute poetry and which are less likely to be received as such. I started by saying that poetry comes from that place within us where we often refuse to look, but what will not be considered poetry in our class was hate speech. One of my seniors stopped me and asked, “How could that be? Art is subjective, and people who say hateful things are protected by free speech.”
It pretty much halted me in place, and I had difficulty explaining to them the principles of free speech. And then I thought about our constitution and the ways free speech is protected. I came to realize that, despite the common thought that we’re not allowed to shout “fire” in a crowded theater, there doesn’t seem to be clear consensus on regulating speech so caustic it could burn.
The growing conversation that followed the violence in Charlottesville brought back into the spotlight the idea of free speech. The clash between white supremacists and counter protesters had spawned several camps of people who were either pro, anti, sort of, hell yeah, or hell no regarding free expression. The current administration and its response to issues related to Charlottesville continues to be at the center of conversations about free speech and political correctness—an issue that has become more significant since Donald Trump announced his run for president nearly two years ago.
American ideology has been shaped and formed by the Constitution, and no amount of arguing will change the fact that we are protected by it. From gun ownership and religious freedoms, to free speech, both civil and hateful—the bedrock of all American arguments is that “it’s my right.” This ushering in of a new president whose platform was built on divisive and incorrigibly offensive speech doesn’t change what we view as speech protected by the Constitution; it simply reinforces it. It reinforces the reality that hateful speech is still, somehow, protected by law. White supremacists and neo-Nazis may be using their platform to “expose a double standard” or to topple political correctness altogether, but the reality is that their platform intentionally incites a response so visceral and so explosive. The violence that broke out on campus at UVA in response to efforts to “Unite the Right” was a clear indication that the kind of agenda brought in from neo-Confederates would cause anyone to lash out.
We're taught that American ideology was founded on principles of freedom, despite the history of a nation created from the enslavement of Black and Brown bodies. Free speech is protected as the highest right, even though borderline violent language is also protected on the misguided basis of “principle” and “equity.” Historically disadvantaged communities are often the targets of hate speech, and the near explicit backing that nationalist groups in the country receive should not be entirely surprising. It is a pre-existing condition of our country to use our laws to justify the most or near greatest forms of invisible inequity.
Charlottesville has reignited the long-standing debate that questions whether or not we can be equitable, but also opposed to racist and bigoted speech. To those in the margins it seems nonsensical to couple free speech with hate speech, but it seems most sensible to those pioneering in the fringe—those in a firestorm fanned by public figures who act as mouthpieces and who promote division, but call it freedom of speech.
Hate speech may not be the equivalent of yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, but it is definitely becoming fuel for something far more damaging in our country.
Jamal Michel is a featured guest columnist. He is a Duke graduate and high school English teacher in Durham.