A group of liberal media watchdogs, including Free Press, the Media Access Project, and Common Cause, have sent a letter to the FCC asking the agency to track media "hate speech" and its effects, including on the Internet. The letter states that "hate, extremism and misinformation have been on the rise" and asks the agency "to examine the extent and effects of hate speech in media, including the likely link between hate speech and hate crimes, and to explore non-regulatory ways to counteract its negative impacts." (See Ars Technica for a longer summary.)
The letter ties its request to changes in the media and journalism markets, stating: "The Internet gives the illusion that news sources have increased, but in fact there are fewer journalists employed now than before." But shifts in news-industry employment are mostly irrelevant. How many of the jobs lost would have been focused on hate speech? In the heyday of American journalism—whenever you think that was—was there significantly more reporting on so-called hate speech? The implicit argument here is that the FCC should track hate speech in order to plug a newly developed hole in news coverage. But I see no evidence that this is actually the case.
And, of course, taking on this project would mean that the FCC would be forced to make difficult and highly controversial judgment calls about what constitutes hate speech. Would speech that takes after Republicans be tracked? How about anti-Democrat speech? The request focuses on racially-charged expression, but invariably, political views would be brought into the equation. The letter, in fact, refers to responses to Arizona's newly passed immigration law. Thus, tracking hate speech would put the FCC in the impossible position of drawing a line between reasonable and unreasonable support for the law. I find the law deplorable, but its advocates deserve the right to be able to express their support without fear that a federal agency will label their speech dangerous.
But that's exactly where hate-speech tracking would lead. The letter indicates that its goal is primarily to collect such information and make it available to the public, and states that any follow-up action should be "non-regulatory." But does anyone believe it would stay that way? And even without regulation, it would still have a chilling effect on free expression. The hate speech designation, even without regulatory intervention, is a way of dividing speech into good and bad, acceptable and unacceptable, officially approved and unapproved. Even if the FCC never ventured into explicit censorship, such a designation is bound to put pressure on speakers and speech. "Free speech" should not mean "free but frowned upon."