How we deal with hate speech

Over at The American Prospect I’ve written a review of Jeremy Waldron’s new book The Harm in Hate Speech. It’s a good book for making you reconsider some of the sacred cows in the liberal approach to freedom of speech. It’s also a great model of a book that consciously fits into a broader conversation, as Waldron engages with a few different authors throughout the whole work. After reading it, you get the feeling that you’ve just been exposed to several books’ worth of arguments and ideas.

There are some strange parts, though, as I mention:

When discussing the 2005 controversy in which a Danish newspaper published cartoons depicting Muhammad as a bomb-throwing terrorist, Waldron says “where there are fine lines to be drawn the law should generally stay on the liberal side of them.” Yet Waldron describes how it would be defamatory to publish a statement saying “Tea Party politicians cannot be trusted with public funds,” or “Tea Party politicians are dishonest,” ignoring arguments mentioned elsewhere in the book that speech about elected officials should be given the widest freedoms. And in an interesting but underdeveloped chapter, Waldron draws an analogy between defamatory speech and pornography, arguing that sexualized images—including television, billboard, and subway advertising—undermine society’s assurance of equality to women. What he seems to suggest is that it would be more legitimate to outlaw lingerie ads or broad statements about political leaders than to prohibit the Danish cartoons—a strange vision of “balance,” and not one that errs on the side of liberalism.

It would’ve been nice to see him work a bit more on drawing lines and other, more concrete questions his arguments raise. Still, it’s good to be reminded that conversations about hate speech shouldn’t end with “but that’s the price we pay for having the First Amendment.”

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