Liberals, Conservatives, and “Hate Speech”

Over the last few days, I’ve posted several posts about liberal vs. conservative attitudes on a range of free speech questions, including “hate speech,” anti-religious speech, and more, both based on questions from the General Social Survey and based on an analysis of Supreme Court Justices’ decisions on these questions (whether from the 1970s to now or the 1990s to now). All the results show a similar pattern: (1) liberals tend to be somewhat more sympathetic to free speech protection, including for racist speech, than are conservatives or moderates, (2) the difference is fairly slight, and (3) all three groups are divided on the subject, often sharply divided.

As readers might have gathered, these posts have been triggered by the common argument that I hear from conservatives — for instance, in the comments to these very posts — about how liberals are supposedly eager to support restrictions on “hate speech” and on anti-Muslim blasphemy. Being someone who generally leans more conservative than liberal (and definitely more Republican than Democrat), I would have liked to endorse this argument, and see liberals as culpable in the occasional moves to impose such restrictions. But I think the argument is misguided, for four closely related reasons.

1. It’s factually unsound. Liberals are generally no more likely than conservatives to support restrictions on “hate speech,” and are probably somewhat less likely to do so (though the apparent distance between the groups generally isn’t that great, and is small enough that it’s possible that true distance is virtually nil).

It’s true that some “hate speech” restrictions, such as campus speech codes and even more aggressive restrictions, have been mostly proposed by liberals (in this instance meaning generally people who are left of center). But some of the leading opponents of such restrictions, such as Nadine Strossen and Harvey Silverglate, have likewise been liberals. And while I’ve seen no surveys that break down liberal vs. conservative public opinion on speech codes as such, the general support among many conservatives for restrictions on, say, speech that argues that blacks are genetically inferior suggests that many conservatives among the public would support speech codes as well.

2. It’s unfair. Liberals and conservatives, according to the GSS, are both pretty sharply split on such questions; even if a “hate speech” restriction is proposed by some liberals, it seems very likely to be opposed by a substantial share of liberals, perhaps even a majority.

I understand that our mental images of either group may be a lot more homogeneous — but I suspect that this is a reflection of our own limited experience and limited memories. I doubt that many of us have discussed these questions in details with large groups of liberals and conservatives, much less representative groups. We might remember a few prominent speakers on one or another side who have taken one or another view. But that doesn’t mean much about what “liberals” generally think or what “conservatives” generally think.

3. It’s ungrateful. We owe a great deal of our free speech protections — including protections against university speech codes, protections for alleged “hate speech,” protections for anti-Muslim speech, and so on — to many people, including many liberals, both past (such as Justices Brennan, Marshall, and Douglas, and many liberal lawyers and activists) and present or only very recently past (Justices Ginsburg and Souter, and many current liberal lawyers and activists). Even if we disagree with these people on many things, we should appreciate and respect their contributions on this issue, on which we are allied. And condemning the whole liberal movement, of which they have been integral parts, as supposedly being on the wrong side of this issue strikes me as a poor way of showing such appreciation.

4. It’s politically unwise. Any continued protection against campus speech code, “hate speech” bans, and bans on speech that offends religious groups generally and Muslims in particular can’t come from conservatives and libertarians alone, especially given the number of conservatives who don’t support protecting such speech. It can only come from a continuation of the coalition that has protected such speech in the past — a coalition that has contained many liberals, moderates, conservatives, and libertarians. Unfairly condemning liberals on this point may well alienate some of them from this coalition. And suggesting that supporting such speech restrictions is indeed the liberal way (even when that suggestion comes in the form of condemnation) might in some measure become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I want the law to keep protecting speech, including what some label as “hate speech”; I oppose campus speech codes; I oppose restrictions on religiously offensive speech. But I think the best way of accomplishing this — both practically best and most reflective of the truth — is by viewing liberals as potential allies (and, in many instances, actual allies, past and present) and not as adversaries.