This past July, the Center co-hosted a conference in Rome, “Liberalism’s Limits: Religious Exemptions and Hate Speech.” The conference, which addressed the challenges that religious exemptions and hate-speech regulations pose for liberalism, was divided into three workshops, for which participants submitted short reflection papers. Professor Steven D. Smith (University of San Diego School of Law) submitted the following paper for Workshop 3, on hate speech, which we are delighted to publish here:
What is the relation between liberalism and the regulation of–or, conversely, the legal protection of–“hate speech”? And what if anything does the problem of hate speech tell us about liberalism?
Hate speech is pretty much by definition vicious and hurtful, and a legal regime without “liberal” aspirations might have no prima facie reason to respect or protect it (assuming that it could be adequately defined). Conversely, a liberal government might extend constitutional protection to hate speech–for pragmatic reasons (slippery slope concerns, for example, or worries about overbreadth) but also for more principled reasons. More specifically, liberalism implies that people should have the freedom to do and say things that are objectionable or wrongful so long as they cause no harm to others.
“Harm,” to be sure, turns out to be a complicated–and often conclusory or question-begging–notion. Suppose Puritan is profoundly disturbed by his neighbor Pru’s practice of watching prurient movies in her basement. Puritan’s emotional distress may be real enough. And emotional distress is unpleasant; in other contexts it can constitute a compensable injury. But under liberalism, Puritan’s emotional distress in this context will not count as “harm”–or at least not as the cognizable harm that can justify a restriction on Pru’s liberty. Why not? We will say that Pru’s practice cannot be restricted because it causes no harm, but what we mean is that Puritan’s very real pain cannot count as harm here because (we know in advance) Pru’s liberty should not be restricted. We will express this foreordained conclusion by saying that Puritan’s “offense” or “hurt feelings” do not amount to cognizable “harm.”
But offense and hurt feelings are exactly the kinds of harm–or rather of non-harmful “hurts”–produced by hate speech (unless, that is, such speech goes beyond mere hatefulness by, for example, inciting listeners to violence). Or so it may seem. And on this view, there is no justification for regulating people’s ability to express themselves hatefully, no matter how worthless such speech may be.Read more