Is what happened in Arizona a first amendment issue or should we forget all that and focus on the responsibility of civic leaders? Was that young man inspired to wreck such havoc by the words of Sarah Palin and those who fund the Tea Party Movement? I think it is our responsibility to address first amendment rights in light of what happened.
Our first amendment rights are the keystones of democracy. And rightly so. I have been in countries where men were beaten and sometimes disappeared because they wore their hair too long – below the collar line to be precise. I have seen the grief on the mothers’ and sisters’ faces for those lost because they believed they should have the freedom to express their views. Those climates are a far cry from our democracy, and people are worse off because of it.
Our freedom of speech rights give us the right to express ourselves, and the right of assemble, and certain other rights.
The First Amendment:
- “ Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
But not all speech is free. You can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater when there is none. You can’t post pictures of yourself molesting a child. You can’t call on people to lay siege to the Whitehouse. You can’t put posters advertising your business just anywhere. And you can’t assemble just anywhere. If you and your buddies want to have a parade down 4th Avenue, you need a permit. If you and your friends want to protest a global trade organization, you better have a permit. Why isn’t all speech free? Why can’t people just march anytime? Because the overall good of the public is put in harms way. We the People are better off with certain limits.
Those limits should include hate speech.
Hate crimes are not punishable unless committed with a felony. A Hate Crime is defined by a mental state (mens rea) and intent to harm a group people because of their race or color, sexual orientation or political view point, etc. If someone kills another person, that’s murder. If someone kills another person because they are black or white, gay or straight, republicans or democrat, that’s murder and a hate crime.
Hate speech harms the public. It harms We the People. When we say “Kill all the Jews,” “Kill all the Germans,” or “Kill all Palestinians” we harm ourselves. We create a climate where a child growing up in a hostile environment stops – or never starts- believing in her or his self. A climate where some people, just because their skin is perceived to have a different color, or their political view points are on one side or the other, or they were born in a certain place, do not have equal access to opportunities and resources and must fear for their safety unless in known safe places. This is harmful to the public good. When people are unable to reach their potential as members of our society and their community, all of us are worse off. Hate crimes are like domestic violence and child abuse - where the victims suffer for years and sometimes never escape the control and constraints of their abuser - except on a larger scale. As when a parent or partner keeps their victim from realizing his or her potential, so with hate crimes, we, as the people, allow expressions of bias and prejudice to keep entire groups of people down.
Hate speech should be a punishable crime, with sentences of education and community time, just as we punish some instances of domestic violence with anger or control management education and community time.
Think of what that 22 year old boy did in Arizona on Saturday. Think of the pain his parents must be in now. Think of the anguish he felt because of the hate filling his heart – an anguish and pain that lead him to commit these terrible acts that can never be undone, that, for the parents, partners and children of those murdered, can never be forgotten or, in all likelihood, forgiven. An anguish that created more anguish – the heart hurts to think of it all.
It is in these times that we must ask ourselves to examine what is most elemental to us, and to be true to our values, true to our good nature. Our first amendment rights were formed to create a land of freedom, a land where all had the right to pursue happiness and equal opportunity. We limit those rights when speech or assembly harms the public good. Hate speech is a hate crime all by itself – and needs to be punishable as such instead of letting this ill fester and lead to such pain and anguish.