The constitution of the United States was framed by brilliant men, ahead of their times, who guaranteed to the citizens of the country an array of rights that were unprecedented, making America an exceptional nation to this day. The Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments to our Constitution) provides for a wide array of freedoms: of speech, of religion, of assembly, of association, of press, as well as the right to keep and bear arms.
However, enjoying all of these freedoms requires an informed and educated populace, personal responsibility, common decency, and a duty toward keeping public peace. Sadly, that responsibility is brazenly forgotten in these times.
In exercising his freedom of speech, the preacher in Florida who burnt the holy Koran did not demonstrate any of these responsibilities. His act should be, in reasonable minds, considered a hate crime. However, our Constitution allows his act as free speech and no legal action can be initiated against him. Nations and communities around the world do not understand the limitations that our Constitution places on the American government at the federal and state level that prevent it from acting against these lunatics and stopping them from inflicting damage on the societal and communal fabric of America and, indeed, of the world. Naturally, this leads to perplexity and, in some places like Afghanistan, anger at the United States for allowing such assaults on the sensibilities and beliefs of a large section of the world community.
The same goes for radio talk-show hosts, who do not hesitate to spew falsehoods in the search for higher ratings and audience engagement. Before the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008, one personality incited listeners to start riots at the venue, giving examples of burning cars and setting fires as a means to violence. Before the mid-term elections last year, a map circulated on the Internet depicted crosshairs on congressional members, one of whom happened to be Gabrielle Gifford, the Arizona congresswoman who was the target of an assassination attempt in January 2011.
Hate speech by anyone is deplorable, but when it is carried out by people in a position to influence many others, it becomes particularly reprehensible. Unless there are safeguards against such hate-mongering, America is at risk of being tarred as a nation that supports such rhetoric, even as the fringe and radical elements of American society get emboldened to violent action by it.
Our Constitution makes us a beacon of freedom in this world but, in these sensitive times, it is not unfair to expect some limits and responsibilities from individuals, corporations, and the press, in the interests of the common good. If they cannot be self imposed, it may be time to mandate them by law by amending the Constitution to better serve our times.
Rameysh Ramdas, an SF Bay Area professional, writes as a hobby.
No, Americans citizens are capable of recognizing hate speech and disavowing it
The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech without reference to the quality of the speech. The unstated assumption relies on the average citizen’s judiciousness. While this assumption can be, and has been, abused repeatedly, it would be interesting to examine the consequences of current legal safeguards against hate speech and see how these laws have been executed in practice before asking for the enactment of new laws.
The Supreme Court does exempt hate speech from hiding under the umbrella of free speech, provided there are negative and “imminent” consequences. The question of what constitutes “imminence” is unclear. Let us take two examples. The Florida pastor’s burning of the Koran did result in the killing of United Nations workers in Afghanistan. Did this qualify as “imminent” harm? American courts have been content to let the murky nebulousness of the killing of non-Americans in a distant country stand.
However, the Supreme Court’s decision in Wisconsin vs. Mitchell (1993) is disturbingly revealing—a group of African-American youth from Wisconsin were found to have fulfilled the aforementioned “imminence” clause when they beat and maimed a Caucasian youth as a result of being incensed by revelations from the movie Mississippi Burning. The youth themselves had a litany of prior complaints, harassment, and abuse perpetrated against them but the courts chose to pay attention only when the roles of perpetrator and victim were reversed; in other words, a clause that should have protected the youth was used to prosecute instead.
There is also the issue of access to litigation by potential victims. Belying America’s reputation for litigation is the profile of the litigious—the realm of the self- righteous and rich. The average victim would have to rely on pro-bono representation. Given the proclivity of accused perpetrators to prolong the case and frustrate the accuser, financial reality intrudes and prevents the most idealistic of lawyers from assisting every client who deserves help. Creating a stricter definition of acceptable speech would open up a Pandora’s Box of unjust accusations, thus allowing for even greater opportunity for the privileged few to oppress those without means.
After all, one person’s hate crime could well be the other’s expression of protest. And while the actions of the pastor in Florida were ill-advised, let us not use that as an excuse to justify the killings in Afghanistan; no amount of verbal provocation can exculpate a physical response.
The status quo, therefore, seems to be the best solution under the circumstance. Citizens should use their discretion to walk the line between hate speech and freedom of speech without trespassing. Legalistic solutions to this issue may well be examples of boons morphing into banes—one has to be careful of being granted that wish.
S.Gopikrishna writes on issues of interest to India and expat Indians..