Professionals divided on inflammatory speech regulations

Sarah White

If we can’t speak what we think, there is no way to affect change and we effectively shut down the avenue for progress, said BB&T Corp. chair holder.

On Tuesday, the BB&T chair for the Study of Objectivism hosted a dialogue on the topic of inflammatory speech in the Graduate School of Business Building. At the event, they discussed diverse issues relating to the topic of free speech, including blasphemous, offensive and hateful speech.

Smith met with Nadine Strossen, former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, Alexander Tsesis, law professor at Loyola University and John Burnett, correspondent for National Public Radio.

Tsesis led the discussion by mentioning court cases that support the principle that hate speech is not protected by the constitution and that regulation is a viable option.

“Copyright violations, distributions of child pornography, obscenity and threats against the president are all content-based limitations on speech that are already in place,” Tsesis said.

He said instances of harmful hate speech have assisted to prolong and intensify racism in the American South and abroad in places such as Nazi Germany.

“The truth does not always win out in the market place of ideas and hate speech can be very powerful,” Tsesis said.
Strossen said that she held an opposite position on the topic of inflammatory speech.

“[In allowing censorship,] we give government officials unfettered powers. Every idea can be seen as an incitement, and the decisions [of government officials] will be arbitrary at best and discriminatory at worst,” she said.
Strossen said that she recognizes the claim that hate speech can be damaging, but she does not believe censorship is the answer.

“The government must remain neutral to the viewpoint of the speech,” Strossen said. “The solution is not to eliminate this speech but to answer it.”

Burnett spoke about his experiences with inflammatory speech and the Ku Klux Klan as a reporter.

“I have deep misgivings about being the medium through which these Ku Klux Klan protests were given attention,” Burnett said.

However, he said that in the end, he respects their right to free speech.

“We are all grown-ups, and we have the ability to handle these kinds of issues,” Burnett said.

Smith said she tried to involve speakers from numerous different viewpoints in order to make the event a dialogue rather than a debate.

“The term ‘debate’ seems to imply that there are only two positions and that there can be a winner or a loser,” Smith said. “In fact, these are very multifaceted and complex issues.”

Smith and the three panel members spoke about specific cases of free speech questions including Klan protests, flag burnings and recent anti-gay protests at military funerals.

“It is in the particulars that these issues get interesting,” Smith said. “The stakes are real around the world and in the neighborhood.”