Punish conduct, not thought
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Bill Barth
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Punish conduct, not thought
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Why Americans are angry
     There’s a phrase that has begun to bother me more every time I hear it.
“Hate speech.”
     I heard it during the debate over health care reform in Washington, in the context of scolding critics of President Obama’s proposals. Those who were using words like “socialist” or “socialized medicine” or “government takeover” were edging into hateful territory. And when language such as ‘Un-American” or “unpatriotic” entered into the argument … well, that was just coded racism.
     When civil rights pioneer Congressman John Lewis and other African American lawmakers were taunted by a protester with the N-word, that was called hate speech. Likewise, when openly gay Congressman Barney Frank was called the fa-word, that was widely called hate speech.
     When both Democrat and Republican legislators received nasty, profane calls and emails — some deemed threatening — those were called hate speech.
     Recently, we had strong reader reaction and comments on our website when my paper ran a story about Latinos rallying for immigration reform at the office of our congresswoman, Rep. Tammy Baldwin.
     The angry responses were … you guessed it … called hate speech, by some.
On a journalism trade blog I read about a college columnist who questioned the judgment of a female student who reported “date rape” following a bout of heavy drinking and, well, fraternizing, at a frat party. The column set off a campus uproar and was, yep, repeatedly called hate speech.
     Some time back I participated in a free-speech panel discussion on a Wisconsin college campus, which essentially asked the question of whether offensive remarks constituted hate speech and should be punishable. Before the panel could come to any conclusions — indeed, before some of us, including me, could even speak — the session was interrupted by student protesters who were, far as I could tell, aspiring to make being offended a professional goal.
     All of this offends me.
     It probably will not come as a surprise that a newspaper editor is a free-speech absolutist. To me, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution is sacred. From that amendment flows all the other freedoms Americans enjoy.
     Not that I refuse to draw any lines. As the late Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, one cannot shout “fire” in a crowded theater with impunity. Likewise, providing porn to kids is a crime. Libel and defamation laws deal with malicious falsehoods.
     But the growing notion that people, somehow, ought to have a right not to be offended is, in my view, indefensible.
     In the first place, who defines what is offensive? I’m offended when I see some fool walking around with a tee-shirt emblazoned with the f-bomb. I’m offended when a protester burns a flag. I’m offended when I get behind a car with a suggestive or profane bumper sticker. I’m offended when I’m walking around a mall or park with my kids or grandkids and others we encounter can’t resist loudly peppering their conversations with obscenities.

     Mind you, my argument isn’t with the idea that in our multicultural society people should be sensitive to one another. It’s only good manners to address all people with respect.
     The First Amendment, however, does not require that. Individuals or groups do not have a legal right to avoid being offended. Rude, crude language, including name-calling, is not necessarily “hate speech,” which suggests some sort of legal standing.
     That, truly, is what I fear, as a First Amendment absolutist. America has criminalized “hate crimes,” though in my mind a murder victim is jut as dead no matter the motivations of the killer. Universities have adopted speech codes providing punishment for offending others’ sensitive ears. It’s a short walk from there to the criminalization of “hate speech.”
     I’m for punishing conduct, not thought.
     You can hate me if you want. You can offend me if you want. You can call me names and angrily question my ancestry — trust me, I’ve had readers do just that. No crime; no harm done.
     But you can’t call me names AND throw a rock at my head. You’ll be arrested for your CONDUCT.
     And if you call my mother a bad name and I break your nose, I will be arrested for my conduct. I probably wouldn’t even mind paying the fine.
     But let’s lay off this wimpy business of calling out everybody for “hate speech.” That’s not America. In a free society everybody has the right to be heard. Even the jerks. In fact, if we’re going to uphold free speech, the most important part is allowing jerks to be heard. If the only speech that’s free is that with which we agree, don’t call it free.