Wednesday, July 12, 2017

FREE SPEECH IS NOT HATE SPEECH

Recently, an old high school friend shared a post on Facebook showing a Confederate flag (posted by one of her friends), questioning whether states should be allowed to fly this under the protection of the First Amendment. I believe she did this in a spirit of inquiry--to elicit people's opinions. The original source for this picture was adamant that the flag was not racist but was about pride in one's southern heritage.

As a woman with southern roots herself (a grandfather and an uncle both from Little Rock), I passionately disagree with this. 

I've had an interesting tour on the internet about what constitutes hate speech, and the divisions between that and free speech. It can get somewhat murky at times, but this is what I found.

1/ See an article in Huffpost, The Blog) (6/22/15) by Ben O'Keefe, a man of color, where he declares that the Confederate flag is "a symbol of hatred." He contends that the succession of eventually 11 states was primarily about the right to own slaves.  "As a person of color," he writes, "when I see the Confederate flag, I am filled with fear." He also cites Ta-Nehisi Coates' article in "The Atlantic" (Take Down the Confederate Flag Now, 6/18/15), that the flag is not about southern heritage but is about oppression. Coates directs us to the "Corner Stone Speech" by Alexander H. Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy (3/21/1861), and you will see that the Confederacy was founded on the belief "that the negro is not equal to the white man...", thus justifying the enslavement of millions of black people.

2/ In Texas, the Sons of the Confederacy wanted to have a special license issued showing their flag. The state refused. This went all the way to the Supreme Court where it was ruled, 5-4, that such licenses are not free speech. The court differentiated between government speech and private speech, where such licenses could be interpreted as Texas supporting the Confederacy and all that the flag means. (See "The Guardian," Scott Lemieux, 6/15/15).

3/ Then check out the recent inspiring speech by the Mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieux, on the need to remove statues honoring Confederate heroes. (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j81MkNgn.XuY.) He is a son of the South, and he knows the harm seeing such statues can do to people of color.

4/ After Dylan Roof's shooting of nine people of color at the AME church in South Carolina, the picture of Dylan holding a rifle in one hand and a Confederate flag in the other went viral, influencing the state to finally remove the flag from the capitol.  At the Washington National Cathedral there were two stained glass windows depicting the flag and southern heroes, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. After the shooting, the Bishop had these removed immediately saying that he did not want to cause further harm to people of color.

5/ Here's a few more examples for those who still think the flag celebrates southern history and is not a symbol of oppression. Influenced by the shooting in South Carolina, on May 19, 2016 the House banned the flying of the Confederate flag at all VA cemeteries.  And these stores took any representations of the flag off their products: Target, Walmart, Amazon, eBay, Etsy, and Sears.  Their reasoning was that they did not want to offend or cause harm to their customers.

So, what's the upshot? Is flying the Confederate flag a question of free speech or hate speech? Certainly you can display it from your porch, your car window, in decals, and this qualifies as "free speech," though, as recent events in Arlington show--when a neighbor in a mostly white neighborhood flew this flag from his porch--his neighbors were disturbed and worried and went to talk cordially with him.  Eventually he took the offending symbol down. (Kay Lazar, "The Boston Globe," 3/6/17).  His neighbors experienced this as hate speech, even though technically it slides under the free speech category.

Allowing states to fly the Confederate flag means--if you extrapolate from the decision about the Texas license plates--that the government supports what the flag conveys.  This is official speech, not private free speech. But more to the point: this flag is an affront, an insult, a slap in the face, a declaration of privilege and white supremacy, and an implicit threat to people of color.

I was horrified to see this flag on my FB feed. It offended, upset me, and I worried that friends of mine who are people of color would also be offended and upset.  To me, this is no different from painting a Nazi swastica on a Synagogue or the home of a Jewish family. It is a threat, implying violence. And that's the definition of "hate speech" that "it attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability, or gender." It "incites violence or prejudicial action"...or "intimidates a protected group..." (Legal definition of hate speech found in Wikepedia).

When I was 18, a freshman at Bates College, and dated a young man of color, I can assure you that when some creeps burned a cross on the lawn of my family home that I was "intimidated," frightened, and saw this as a clear warning to me: whites and blacks don't mix. Do not go out with a black man. (1964)

I hope we have made some progress since then, but at times I question this. Just look at the numbers of black men killed by police and at the proportion of men of color in prisons today in our country. The author Michelle Alexander, cited in Ta-Nehisi Coates' article, (Take Down The Flag, in "The Atlantic", 6/18/15), states that the mass incarceration of black men today is a modern form of Jim Crow.

We all need to work against the deep racism in our country. It flows through so many of us, myself included--a turgid, unseen river carrying lives, drowning dreams, and burying the futures of young people in hatred, prejudice, and lost
opportunities.  I believe the Confederate flag is not an agent of free speech, not should it be protected--in public--by the First Amendment. Times change, laws evolve, rulings change, and the framers of the First Amendment could not have anticipated the future we live in now.

I take my cue from the Jesuits, whom I love and admire, when they give this advice: When you consider your words and actions, ask yourselves--Does this create unity among people or divisions between people?

No comments:

Post a Comment