Fight hate with speech, not censorship – Chicago Tribune
The man accused of killing 10 African Americans in a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, was violently anti-Semitic and racist. Indeed, he blamed Jews for the so-called “great replacement” – a belief based on a racist conspiracy theory that non-white people are used to replace white people.
“Jews are the biggest problem the western world has ever had,” Payton Gendron wrote in an online manifesto posted before the attack. “They must be called out and killed.”
You can see the same kinds of screeds in the hateful digital footprint of the white supremacist who allegedly murdered 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018. Ditto for the 2019 shooter at a synagogue in Poway, Calif., who wrote that Jews were responsible for the “genocide” of “white Europeans”.
I’m Jewish, so you can guess that I support renewed calls to criminalize hate speech in the wake of the Buffalo Massacre. But you would be wrong. I’m also a historian, so I know that censorship, no matter how well intentioned, doesn’t end well. We must speak out against hate, but we must never stop anyone else from speaking out.
That’s what Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown demanded as his city mourned the victims who were allegedly shot by a racist. “Social media companies need to be held accountable,” Brown said. “We cannot allow hate speech and hate manifestos to be disseminated on social media. It is not freedom of expression. It’s not American, it’s not the American way.
Representing the family of Ruth Whitfield, an 86-year-old grandmother who was killed in the attack, attorney Benjamin Crump insisted that pundits and politicians spreading racist theories were ‘accomplices’ in the rampage . Most notably, Fox News host Tucker Carlson and U.S. Representative from Florida Matt Gaetz both warned of the same “great replacement” that apparently motivated Gendron. “Even though they may not have pulled the trigger, they loaded the gun,” Crump said.
Finally, New York Governor Kathy Hochul pledged to pressure social media platforms to monitor and remove hate speech. “Someone needs to watch this and turn it off the second it pops up,” Buffalo native Hochul said. “Hate speech is not protected.”
In fact, it is. I understand Hochul’s anger and frustration at this terrible time. But everything speech is protected in the United States, as long as it does not pose an immediate and tangible threat to someone else. It’s the real American way, or at least it should be.
And if you think otherwise, consider the case of Black Lives Matter organizer DeRay Mckesson. After leading a protest in response to the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling, a black father of five in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Mckesson was chased by an injured police officer during the protest.
No one alleges Mckesson knew or colluded with the unknown assailant, who threw an object at the officer that left him with jaw and brain injuries. But a federal appeals court ruled that Mckesson “knew or should have known” that the protest would turn violent, allowing the lawsuit against him to proceed.
Or, to use Crump’s words, Mckesson should have known the gun was loaded. From such a perspective, it doesn’t matter whether Mckesson pulls the trigger or not. His words and actions led to violence, so he should be held accountable.
Similarly, law enforcement officials in Portsmouth, Virginia, brought felony charges against an African-American state legislator and several black civil rights leaders after a 2020 protest against police brutality and Confederate statues. A protester was seriously injured when a statue was knocked down and fell on him.
“Several individuals conspired and organized to destroy the monument and summon hundreds of people to join in the criminal acts,” the city’s police chief said. Again, there was no allegation that they directly harmed the injured protester. But their words sparked violence – and that made them their accomplices?
It’s absurd. Of course, I don’t equate the African-American protesters’ demands for justice with Gendron’s hateful drivel. But once you decide that certain speeches are too dangerous to broadcast, other speeches will be banned on the same grounds.
Say the names of Buffalo’s victims. Shout them from the tops of hills, rafters and streets. Challenge racism and anti-Semitism, wherever you see them. But if you say that there are things that cannot be said, beware! One day soon, the censors will come looking for you.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “Who Owns America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools,” to be published this fall in a revised 20th anniversary edition by University of Chicago Press.
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