Philadelphia Eagles’ wide receiver DeSean Jackson posted anti-Semitic quotes attributed to Adolf Hitler on Instagram over the 4th of July weekend. After harsh rebukes from Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and general manager Howie Roseman, both of whom are Jewish, he, quickly, apologized, and deleted the post. In today’s media culture, the knee jerk response to hate speech has been for the social media platform to take down the post, and for that person to be canceled. As of today, Jackson is still a member of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Removing hate speech from the internet all sounds very good. Who doesn’t want to remove hate from our society? I wish I could press a magic button and delete all the hate in everyone’s heart. Imagine how great the world would be if we could just eliminate hate. But we can’t. And we shouldn’t. It’s not my job to remove the hate in someone else’s heart. It’s my job to remove the hate in my own heart. That’s the only heart I am responsible for, that I have dominion over. Censoring speech or canceling people does not eliminate hate. It fosters hate.
For almost a century, the Supreme Court has ruled against hate speech laws. In 1929, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes endorsed “the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.” Justice Holmes stood up for free speech by protecting “hate speech”. He believed that we cannot have a free and open society if we do not have freedom of speech. And we cannot have freedom of speech unless all speech is free, even the speech that we hate. Hate speech is the collateral damage of free speech, of a free society.
Justice Anthony Kennedy warned that “a law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views.” When we start outlawing speech, we open the door to these laws being weaponized, or applied unequally to promote an agenda or achieve an outcome. And this is what has been happening in our social media culture. Prohibitions against hate speech has been used not to eliminate hate, but to eliminate people certain factions in social media hate.
How exactly is hate speech defined? Who gets to define it? Certain legitimate political positions could be censored, if their opponents can get them characterized as hateful. If standing up for greater boarder security, or speaking out against race-based preferences in hiring can be deemed racist positions, hate speech, then they can no longer be discussed on social media? One side of the debate will win, not on the merits of their position, but because they have been able to make the debate one sided, their side.
And even if we can accurately define hate speech, will all hate speech get taken down equally, or will only the speech that the owners of the platform do not like, or goes against their personal political views get taken down? It is interesting that Jackson’s hate-filled post somehow got past the hate speech filter on Instagram which have taken down less hateful rhetoric. Why? It’s hard to argue that his speech was not in fact hate? Does Instagram’s hate police on some level agree with Jackson’s hateful post? And while many people have been canceled for posting a lot less hateful speech than Jackson, somehow, he survived. Why? Is he someone the cancel culture just did not want to cancel? Or is he not a threat to their ideology so there was no need to cancel him?
The social media platforms are so pervasive, so powerful, and so influential in our public debates that it is absolutely necessary that they uphold the principles of free speech that the Supreme Court has articulated, and our government is bound to. Censoring people, or shutting down debate is never the answer, and is always susceptible to corruption. It is vital to our country, and our society that we protect freedom of speech, all speech, even the speech that we hate, in all public platforms. You can only have a free society when we have freedom of speech, and you can only have freedom of speech when all speech is protected. DeSean Jackson’s post was racist and hateful, but should not have been censored. Our country, our society, our freedom will be harmed more by censoring hate speech, then any damage that even the most hateful speech could ever cause.