Hard Questions about Hate Speech and Homicide

memorial candlesThe terrible shooting rampages in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, ought to send us to our knees in prayer for the survivors and for the grieving families that were impacted. Even as the body count was still being tallied, a predictable trio of policy issues burst forth from a cadre of pundits who began to assess blame. Was a lack of gun laws at fault? Or was this, once again, an example of an inadequate mental health system in our nation? Last, but surely not least, were the murders motivated by an excess of extreme rhetoric tolerated on our social media platforms and in our public discourse?

Because that third issue raises questions about the limits to, as well as the value of, free speech, it strikes at the heart of NRB’s mission to protect and defend the free expression rights of Christian communicators as we fight for their rights of access to every available communication platform. Of course our eternity-changing Gospel message is at polar opposites with the conduct of the two murderers, and surely has nothing in common with the El Paso suspect’s online “manifesto” of rage that had preceded the armed assault and was posted on the notorious site 8chan. But the political and legal fallout from such hideous acts could end up hitting close to home as speech restrictions are considered.

I am sure that any one of us would, if we had a choice, voluntarily sacrifice our own access to social media sites, as an example, if we knew that it could prevent another mass shooting. But that is quite a different matter from having avenues of peaceful, lawful, but controversial expression involuntarily closed down by our government or by the big tech companies that control the levers of internet information in order to satisfy the public outcry for immediate solutions to horrible and complex tragedies.

Research so far has failed to prove a causal connection between extreme expression over mass media outlets and violent acts. Decades ago, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration was tasked to find a link between broadcast content and violent acts. They failed to find one. 

Earlier this year, a British study found a lack of any direct causal link between violent video games and youthful violence.

That is not to say that we shouldn’t condemn the sadistic videogames that fill the arcades and, regrettably, many homes. But when the U.S. Supreme Court was faced with a California law that prohibited certain extreme videogames in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, it refused to create any new exceptions to the First Amendment. That is hard medicine for some of us to swallow. But the lesson is an old one: when faced with disagreeable or even repulsive opinions, the answer is not censorship, but more (and better) opinions to counter them.

Even when a recent New York University study found a geographical correlation (though not causation) between locations that had high racial violence and racism spouted over social media in those same areas, the researchers hedged their conclusions by stating that, nevertheless, “the specific causal mechanisms between social media hate speech and real-life acts of violence need to be explored.”      

What may be needed is a definitive debate over what is, and is not, “hate speech,” and whether that term has been so distorted by those with political and social agendas that it ought to be jettisoned altogether. I still recall the front cover of a national magazine accusing the National Religious Broadcasters of “hate” simply because of our adherence to Scripture. When the federal hate crimes law was on the precipice of passage, we worked hard to ensure the addition of language to the bill so it would not be used as a cudgel against legitimate religious expression that is deemed “hate” simply because it is counter-cultural.

As our political leaders and online monopolies grapple with these questions, they should be reminded that the U.S. Supreme Court has thought hard on such issues, and has identified those kinds of speech – “true threats,” “fighting words,” and “incitements to imminent violence” – that can be suppressed without offending free speech. We would do well to remember those principles, and as we do, to also counter a culture full of repulsive, slanderous opinions by, as the Apostle Paul writes, speaking the truth, and by speaking it in love.

By Craig Parshall , General Counsel, National Religious Broadcasters, Director, John Milton Project for Free Speech 

Published: August 8, 2019

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