A recent poll on Americans’ attitudes towards the First Amendment reveals a complex perspective on free speech. While a significant majority (90%) of respondents believe that the Constitution’s First Amendment protections for free speech are a “good thing,” a closer examination of their views on specific examples of speech raises questions about the depth of their commitment to free speech principles.
One striking finding from the survey is that 58% of respondents do not believe that the First Amendment should extend to the racist hate group, the Ku Klux Klan. A similar percentage (58%) also rejects First Amendment protections for the Nazi Party, while 55% hold the same view about the Communist Party. These statistics highlight a significant contradiction in Americans’ beliefs: they may support free speech in principle, but they draw the line when it comes to speech they find objectionable.
This contradiction poses a fundamental problem for the concept of free speech. Defining what constitutes “hate speech” is inherently subjective, and giving the government the power to decide which ideas are beyond the bounds of free speech risks entrenching the status quo. The very notion of “hate” is contentious and varies widely among individuals. For instance, some might label advocacy against abortion restrictions as “hateful” because it appears to condone the killing of unborn babies, while others may view advocating for such restrictions as “hateful” for seeking to control women’s reproductive choices.
As Nadine Strossen of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) points out, powerful politicians have labeled Black Lives Matter advocacy as hate speech, while others denounce such denunciations as hate speech itself. Strossen aptly concludes that what one person considers a repudiation of intolerance, another may deem hate speech.
True support for free speech necessitates the legal protection of speech, even when it is considered “hateful” by some. Attempting to carve out exceptions for speech deemed noxious or offensive can lead down a dangerous path where the exception becomes the new rule. Thus, it is essential to uphold the principles of free speech without selectively applying them based on personal preferences, as doing so undermines the very foundation of this crucial democratic value.