Sara Lipton, an author and historian, in her recent Op-Ed in The New York Times, “The Words That Killed Medieval Jews,” asked the question: do harsh words lead to violence? Lipton relates her research on medieval Jewish history and how iconography led to violence on the Jewish community to contemporary instances of rhetoric sparking violence, such as the beating of a homeless man in Boston inspired by President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration speeches and the mass shooting in Colorado Springs provoked by Carly Fiorina’s implication that Planned Parenthood was harvesting “baby parts.”
“No historian can claim to have insight into the motives of living individuals. But history does show that a heightening of rhetoric against a certain group can incite violence against that group, even when no violence is called for. When a group is labeled hostile and brutal, its members are more likely to be treated with hostility and brutality,” Lipton wrote.
Lipton concludes that harsh words, even if not intended, do in fact lead to violent ends.
So, if harsh words are historically proven to lead to violent ends, should hate speech be protected under freedom of speech?
Freedom of speech is given to U.S. citizens under the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
I argue, though, that hate speech should not be protected under the First Amendment, because while people are using their freedom of speech to spread hateful rhetoric, they are taking away the freedom of those they are speaking hatefully against. It also threatens others’ safety by inciting and encouraging violence towards them.
It could be said that these people are not intending for there to be violence incited, but as Lipton explains, it does not matter if the violence was intended or not, what matters is the resulting violence.
It is important that when we are fighting for freedom of speech to be respected, whether on campus or off, we realize that words have real-life effects on groups of people. We can see this not only in Lipton’s example of anti-Jewish iconography, but also in examples such as Japanese internment camps, which were put into place because of the false and hateful rhetoric that the Japanese were “spies” or “terrorists.”
Hate speech historically incites violence against the groups in which the words are targeted. This should not be taken lightly and should certainly not be protected by the law.