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The Double-Edged Sword of Free Speech

One of the most cherished freedoms in the United States is the freedom of speech. Enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of speech protects American citizens from being jailed for voicing unpopular opinions, even hateful opinions (with a few exceptions). This benefits all of us, protecting us against overzealous hyperpartisan officials who might otherwise try to arrest their political opponents or other critics. We have the freedom to speak our minds without fear of legal repercussions.

But that doesn't mean there can't be social repercussions, as several Nazis discovered after participating in last month's torchlit march in Charlottesville. Freedom of speech does not mean you can't be fired for advocating hatred, and it doesn't mean anyone has to give you a platform for your views. (Not you specifically, of course! I'm sure neither of this blog's readers are advocates of hatred.)

Having this gap between legal and social repercussions is critical in keeping hate speech controlled. Too much lenience leads to a world in which hatemongers feel empowered to inflict harm on the larger society. Too much legal restriction leads to a world where hatemongers might earn sympathy for the way they are being treated.

Reddit moderators have attempted on a number of occasions to clean up their site by banning subreddits advocating racism or sexism, with the result that members of those groups spammed mainstream subreddits in retaliation. As of 2015, the moderators have developed a second strategy.

They are allowed to exist, but only in a small corner with no resources and no permission to aggressively promote an agenda across the site. This allows the site to choke out racists and bigots without giving them motivation to act as martyrs for free speech. There are also plans to roll out new tools for the community to combat racism and sexism on its own with admin assistance.

This approach has a historical precedent.

Stetson Kennedy used a similar approach to dismantle the Klan by gathering data, disseminating it to remove their mystique, and ultimately funneling their secrets to the Superman radio show, wherein Superman would destroy the KKK. It empowered the rest of the population to ridicule what turned out to literally be ridiculous, and helped weaken the Klan’s ideals.

As a result, when the most egregious subreddits—such as "r/coontown" or "r/fatpeoplehate"—were taken down, their members were no longer able to fan out into the larger site. These efforts were largely successful, according to researchers at Georgia Tech.

The researchers analyzed over 650 million submissions and comments posted to the site between January and December 2015. After arriving at a definition for "hate speech," which they determined by pulling memes and phrases common to the two shuttered forums, they observed an 80% drop in racist and fat-phobic speech from the users who migrated to other subreddits after the ban. 20-40% of accounts that frequently posted to either r/coontown or r/fatpeoplehate became inactive or were deleted in that same period.

Letting haters know that their ideas are not welcome is a far more effective strategy than either attempting to ban them or yielding them a platform. This approach puts freedom in a larger context. Kat Stoeffel notes:

But the obsession with free speech is not new: Feminist criticism has been met with free-speech paranoia on numerous occasions in the past two years. When a female heckler criticized Daniel Tosh’s rape jokes on Tumblr, male comedians cried censorship. When women complained about street sexual harassment, men worried it might have a chilling effect on sexually liberated speech. When women complained about rape and death threats on Twitter, men worried about the future of the First Amendment. When women asked for a warning about classroom materials that deal with rape, the American Enterprise Institute “Factual Feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers (also a Gamergater) said free speech was under attack on campus. When famous women decried the distribution of their stolen photographs on Reddit, the Daily Caller mourned the “indecent death” of Reddit’s “bastion of free speech.”

The problem with all these "free-speech" defenses is that they promote only a limited sense of freedom. As Stoeffel says, "in each of these cases, women were merely pointing to a threatening, gender-specific kind of speech, and asking for the tools to avoid it." When speech is used to threaten others or to incite violence, it's critical to protect the freedom of the victim or target. Speech in itself doesn't harm people, but when hate speech goes unchallenged, hate crimes inevitably follow.

Ultimately, the issue is not whether it's OK to exclude some types of speech. The issue is what types of speech will be excluded. Because if we as a society don't let hatemongers know their ideas are not welcome, we give them the power to decide who is not welcome.

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