EDITORIAL NOTEBOOK

First Amendment should not protect bigotry

In her book The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood describes freedom as a duality: “freedom to and freedom from.” As Americans, we have been conditioned to appreciate the former as the pinnacle of patriotic liberty; we have created a country where we can do anything we please, where we can exercise our rights in any way that we see fit. There’s a bravery in that, and it’s the concept that lies at the core of American exceptionalism. However, this particular facet that our country was built on focuses on only one of those aforementioned dimensions; we’ve built a state that sacrifices freedom from in favor of freedom to.

When I say “freedom from,” I mean that people in this country should be free from things like hate speech, and I realize that a statement like that compromises the First Amendment. What we need to acknowledge, however, is that the First Amendment was built so that people could criticize the government without fear of repercussion; it was never intended to give people a platform to spread hate and bigotry. In my opinion, that’s an oversight on the part of the Constitution, and one that allows the United States to serve as the largest breeding ground of bigoted ideologies in the Western hemisphere. We stand as one of the last strongholds against hate speech laws, and it disappoints me that Americans think of themselves as above reproach in that regard.

In many ways, I think American exceptionalism is what ultimately prevents our citizens from thinking about hate speech laws critically; we believe that because it’s poised against the First Amendment it’s against the fiber of the American identity. But isn’t tolerance at the core of America? We are a country that was created by immigrants of all colors and identities, and shouldn’t it be part of our ideology to protect that? Instead, we allow the First Amendment to govern us in an outdated and archaic way; the Constitution was meant to be revised, and personally, I don’t believe that the sweeping generalizations of the First Amendment are applicable to modern American society.

It’s not like hate speech laws are a novel idea either; in most of Europe, hate speech is prohibited in some way or another. For example, England has effectively censored the white nationalist website Stormfront as it was decided that it violated the principles of the nation they were trying to create. When people think of censorship, they jump to the totalitarian society portrayed in 1984, but maybe they’re denying the opportunity that censorship can provide to the groups that are marginalized by hate speech. 1984 represents an extreme, but what if we were able to stop the perpetuation of ideas that negatively impact minorities in the United States? Should it not be the role of the government to ensure that its people are afforded equal opportunities to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

I’m not really scared to be called a radical, a communist, or a Marxist, because I know that I’m not; I simply believe that we owe it to our citizens to not be burdened by the perpetuation of ideas about race and identity that are used to oppress them. In a larger sense, I’m hoping that we can create a government that encourages tolerance—and you can’t be tolerant of intolerance.