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Members of the Westboro Baptist Church picket in front of the Supreme Court Oct 6, 2010. (Image: Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)
A sociology professor at North Western University said on Wednesday that the Supreme Court got it wrong when it unanimously sided in favor of free speech.
Laura Beth Nielsen, NWU’s self-proclaimed “sociologist and legal scholar”
Laura Beth Nielsen is a self-proclaimed “sociologist and legal scholar” employed as a professor at North Western University in Evanston, Illinois. In an op-ed published in the LA Times on Wednesday, Nielsen claimed the Supreme Court got it wrong when it issued its unanimous decision on Monday regarding free speech.
On Monday, the United States Supreme Court issued a rare unanimous decision affirming, “Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend”.
I tell my students… local, state, and federal laws limit all kinds of speech.” – Laura Beth Nielsen
Nielsen apparently disagrees with that high court’s unanimous decision. “I tell my students,” Nielsen says, “local, state, and federal laws limit all kinds of speech.”
According to Nielsen, hate speech is not “just speech”, but actually crosses into the realm of physical acts, or in Nielsen’s words, into “doing something”.
This statement perhaps best illustrates where Nielsen’s apparent confusion lies; in confusing “speech” for physical acts. Nielsen also appears confused about what the first amendment protects, and what it does not protect.
For example, speech that leads to illegal activity or actual loss, such as the “slander, libel, and inciting lawless action” listed by Nielsen in her op-ed, is NOT speech protected by the first amendment. Accusing someone falsely of dishonesty (i.e. defamation) may cause a person to lose their banking job, thus causing them actual financial loss. But shouting racial slurs at a bank manager, while offensive, will not cause the manager to lose their bank job, and is therefore protected free speech.
“Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you”
Nielsen would do well to remember that oft-repeated mantra spoken to millions of children by wise mothers, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you”.
Nielsen’s apparent justification for wishing to censor “hate speech”, is one often touted by academics who have been too-long isolated from the “real world” to recognize the larger implications of what they are proposing. “Because we are “free” to be hateful,”, says Nielsen, “members of traditionally marginalized groups suffer.”
Nielsen is absolutely correct in that hate speech can cause suffering. When the Westboro Baptist Church sends its parishioners to shout hate-filled obscenities at a soldier’s funeral, grieving family members suffer. However, what Nielsen apparently fails to grasp, is how much more those “marginalized groups” would suffer if their fellow citizens were permitted to censor their speech simply by labeling it “hateful” or “offensive”.
Westboro Baptist Church’s hate speech is incredibly hurtful to families of grieving soldiers, but allowing Westboro’s hatemongers to file a lawsuit against those soldier’s families, simply because they consider the patriotic eulogy given at the soldier’s funeral service to be “hateful”, would cause the soldier’s families even greater suffering.
In her op-ed, Nielsen makes the claim that, “Racist hate speech has been linked to cigarette smoking.” Assuming that statement is true, then by her own rationale for censoring such hate speech, white cigarette-smokers across the country should be permitted to sue Black Lives Matter organizers for causing their lung cancer. Similarly, black cigarette-smokers would certainly have a claim against the KKK for their own tobacco addictions.
Nielsen says in her op-ed that, “Exposure to racial slurs also diminishes academic performance.” If she truly believes that, then Nielsen should immediately advise North Western University to segregate its classes in order to eliminate any possible exposure to racial slurs, and thus optimize their student’s academic performance.
The reality is, Nielsen’s opinions on free speech are simply wrong. Segregating a school, while it may eliminate “exposure to racial slurs”, would cause greater harm than that against which it purports to protect.
Hate speech, while it may cause suffering, is free speech.
Hate speech, while it may cause suffering, is free speech. As much as some people would like to be able to censor speech they find hateful or offensive, the consequences of doing so would be nothing less than catastrophic for freedom and liberty in this country. While hate speech may indeed cause suffering, censoring hate speech would inevitably lead to even greater suffering, such as that observed under fascist states.
A unanimous Supreme Court has ruled on this matter, leaving no room for ambiguity or legal conjecture, and their decision clearly deflated questionable legal theories that Nielsen has apparently been teaching to impressionable NWU law students.
As a professor and “Director of Legal Studies” at a prominent university, it might be better if Nielsen refrained from indoctrinated her law students on her own legal theories regarding free speech, and instead, concentrate on educating her students on what the highest court in the land has to say on the matter.
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Keywords: free speech, hate speech, Laura Beth Nielson, North Western University, NWU, Supreme Court.