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Fight Hate Speech with More Speech, Not Censorship: ACLU's Nadine Strossen

Nick Gillespie talks to former president of the ACLU Nadine Strossen about the difficulties and importance of free speech.

Few issues are as controversial as the right to free speech, especially when it's pitted against people's desire not to feel attacked or hated simply because of their race, gender, or sexual orientation.

Over the past 20 or 30 years, speech codes have proliferated in the workplace and at colleges and universities. By a narrow margin, says Gallup, today's college students say promoting an inclusive campus environment is more important than protecting First Amendment rights of free speech. Yet large majorities also say they want a campus in which all speech is allowed and that their own campus stifles free expression.

Nadine Strossen, who served as the president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) from 1991 to 2008, is the author of the new book Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship, which lays out a compelling argument against policies that try to restrict what individuals are allowed to say. Attempts to legally prevent and criminalize hate speech, Strossen writes, typically end up being used against the very people and groups they are intended to protect. What's more, she says, the alleged harms caused by ugly speech are routinely overstated.

Strossen is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, and in 1978 the organization she would go on to lead famously defended the rights of neo-Nazis to march through Skokie, a Chicago suburb with a large Jewish population. Many residents of Skokie were survivors of German death camps; they argued that the psychic pain of a Nazi rally would be brutally upsetting and could lead to violence. As the ACLU's brief in that case noted, the arguments for stopping the march were the exact same ones made 10 years earlier by the residents of Cicero, Illinois, who sued to stop Martin Luther King from leading a civil rights demonstration in their town.

Strossen, a professor at New York Law School in Manhattan, sat down with Reason's Nick Gillespie to talk about her new book, why hyperpolarization in American politics makes free expression more difficult, and the best ways to counter bad, stupid, and hate-filled speech.

Edited by Ian Keyser. Intro by Austin Bragg. Cameras by Austin Bragg and Meredith Bragg.

"Clean Soul" by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Photo credit:

Nadine Strossen: Joanne Savio / KRT / Newscom

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  • gormadoc||

    Fight bad people with guns with more guns, not gun control.

    It would be nice if the ACLU renamed themselves to something more accurate that makes it clear they don't defend all civil liberties.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    My very first thought!

  • Eric||

    Fight fire with more fire. Fight violence with more violence. Fight hate with hate. Fight rape with rape.

    Hmmm. Doesn't always work that way I guess.

  • John||

    It often does. The world often works in counterintuitive ways.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Fight fire with more fire.

    Controlled burns are often used in fighting forest fires.

    Fight violence with more violence.

    Countries do this in war. Individuals do this in self defense.

    Fight hate with hate.

    See above.

    Fight rape with rape.

    False equivalence.

  • MarkLastname||

    Is not having a point a hobby of yours or something?

  • dchang0||

    Actually, "fight rape with rape" does work.

    Historically, when two tribes or nations would war, if one side raped the others' women, the other side would retaliate in kind. Naturally that would escalate the war's ferocity ensuring at best a Phyrric victory for the winner. As such it would work as a deterrent to rape so long as the two parties were roughly equally matched.

    Of course, once one side was clearly more powerful, they could rape the other side's women with impunity, but this is the same as a situation between an individual criminal with a gun and an individual victim without a gun--that criminal can rape with impunity.

  • Eidde||

    Surprisingly, I never though of this framing, but it looks pretty good.

    Maybe I can pretend I came up with this comparison on my own.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    Strossen's legacy will always be cutting the ACLU free of the Bill of Rights, indeed, free of any constitutional text whatsoever.

    She came in the head of an organization dedicated to protecting constitutionally identified civil liberties, she left behind an organization dedicated to protecting... whatever the hell they felt like protecting.

  • DajjaI||

    Oh she's good. Why does America get free speech but no other country? We really need to do a better job of exporting our values (not our arms).

  • Don't look at me.||

    Guns are more profitable than values.

  • Shirley Knott||

    Not over the long run.
    I blame the Harvard Business School and 'management by quarterly results.'

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    Few issues are as controversial as the right to free speech, especially when it's pitted against people's desire not to feel attacked or hated simply because of their race, gender, or sexual orientation.

    Meh, one is a right and one is a desire. They aren't really on equal footing going into the argument.

  • Don't look at me.||

    When you are a special award winning pampered snowflake, your desires count more than anything.

  • Zeb||

    That's why a lot of people like to brand desires or perceived needs as "rights".

  • lulz farmer||

    "Rights" are just codes of conduct and expectations that people with similar interests and backgrounds agree upon to make things function more smoothly.

    Once you have competing, conflicting, and antagonistic interest groups especially in ways that are non-bridgable like racial groups occupying the same territory and under the same system of governance competing for limited resources, you will have no agreement on what things like rights or laws should even be, because different group interests coincide with different ideas here.

    Even concepts like meritocracy are now branded as "white supremist" because guess what? The leftoid client groups don't benefit from it. So as to be expected in a conflict model, they agitate against it and for special handouts, exceptions, set-asides and advantage.

    Open borders libertarians who are tunnel-visioned autistics think they can just teach these people about the NAP and all is well. Hasn't happened, not going to happen, and you're going to be shrieking about your gibberish as you're stuffed into the cannibal's cookpot if you keep trying.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    I like to think of it as balancing the right and duty of self-ownership. Obviously these clash constantly. How do you judge whose self-ownership wins?

    By who has the better ability to control it. If I say something that offends some people in a crowd, those people's remedy is to leave or grin and bear it, because the remedy of making me shut up, or making other listeners leave, violates other people's self-ownership. On the other hand, if I stalk somebody and keep pestering them with things I know offend them, then I am the one voluntarily violating their self-ownership.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    the alleged harms caused by ugly speech are routinely overstated

    Extreme overreaction is how every conflict of interest is to be handled these days. It is known.

  • Don't look at me.||

    NO IT'S NOT!

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    HOW DARE YOU DENY MY TRUTH!

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Too bad the ACLU won't fight unconstitutional gun bans with advocating more guns.

  • OpenBordersLiberal-tarian||

    Don't you read Michael Hihn's posts? Common sense gun safety legislation is entirely consistent with the Constitution.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    Hihn's posts simply demonstrate how little common sense, indeed sanity, gun controllers actually have.

  • Eric||

    Meh. I'm glad they're around nonetheless.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Protecting some civil rights is better than not protecting rights.

    I am just sick of the ACLU acting like they are the best civil rights group out there and every American should embrace them for their dedication. Donations too.

    In reality the ACLU leaves a lot to be desired under the categories of rights they do cover.

    To be fair, the NRA is a big disappointment with the 2nd Amendment. They compromise on gun rights.

  • Alcibiades||

    The ACLU now sides with the censors and thugs.

  • OpenBordersLiberal-tarian||

    As a left-libertarian, I have a mostly positive view of the ACLU. I particularly appreciate its staunch support of affirmative action, for instance. On "free speech," however, the group completely loses me. Its interpretation of the First Amendment is fundamentally flawed if it's read in a way that protects people like Richard Spencer.

    Fortunately, I have heard that the ACLU's fundraising success under the Drumpf regime has convinced some of its leadership to abandon its role as a nonpartisan defender of civil liberties. Instead, the thinking goes, the ACLU should re-brand as an explicitly progressive agent of social change. If they do this, I'll consider donating.

    PS: For a different perspective on the limits of free speech, I recommend Is the First Amendment too broad? The case for regulating hate speech in America by Reason contributor Noah Berlatsky.

  • Vin_Decks!!!||

    Few people are stupider, less libertarian, or more authoritarian than you, commie kid. You're such a shitty troll.

    Let me give you a hint, mr "libertarian" : the 1A is explicitly designed to protect the rights of people like Richard Spencer, you worthless, brainless shit-stain.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    You're such a shitty troll.

    As proven by your interaction with it.

  • OpenBordersLiberal-tarian||

    I'm far less authoritarian than many of the commenters here. In fact, I support the two most fundamental human freedoms: the right to immigrate to the United States, and the right to access abortion care. The real authoritarians are the people who want to restrict one or both of those choices, not the people who want to prevent white supremacists from spreading pseudoscience about "race and IQ."

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Oh now you've messed up. Far more fundamental are the right to a government paycheck with no obligations in return, the right to government housing, transit, health care, day care, and so on.

    You let slip yoru trollish colors with this one.

  • JoeBlow123||

    "I'm far less authoritarian than many of the commenters here. In fact, I support the two most fundamental human freedoms: the right to immigrate to the United States, and the right to access abortion care."

    Fucking gold. Thanks for the laugh, you are a master.

  • lulz farmer||

    The 1A is specifically meant to defend political speech. Not pornography or other non-political obscenity. It's funny that the leftoids of today see it in the exact opposite sense, that political speech they don't like is "hate" but they should be free to try to indoctrinate four year old boys into thinking they need to take experimental hormones and chop their penis off.

  • RenaD||

    "Left-libertarian"? Sounds like an oxymoron.

  • Zeb||

    Few issues are as controversial as the right to free speech

    Which is a scary and confusing fact (if it's true).

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Free speech is an inalienable right, as long as you say the right things.

    /prog

  • SIV||

    The left and right threaten free speech equally except for the good left which supports free speech as long as it isn't right wing speech which, while still free for now, is really really bad.

    /reason

  • Alcibiades||

    Only uncivilized nations fine and jail its citizens merely for upsetting the delicate sensibilities of others with words and ideas.

    Only the USA has a First Amendment that guarantees our natural right to free expression.

    The USA is the only truly civilized nation on the planet.

  • esteve7||

    Richard Spencer doesn't tour anymore (or if he does it's almost never), not because people have banned him, but because no one shows up.

  • Eidde||

    Maybe they don't show up because he can't get anyone to ban him?

  • Eidde||

    I mean, I looked up his anti-American screeds* because I kept hearing about him in the context of it being OK to punch him (as he was).

    Now that's blown over, I haven't been as interested in him.

    *He specifically critiques the Declaration of Independence.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    "Sorry Mr Spencer, but we've got ten other protests going on and can't spare enough people to protest your appearance. Can we maybe reschedule for a later date when some of our other protests are done?"

  • lulz farmer||

    As far as I'm aware he doesn't tour anymore because the authorities are allowing the Heckler's veto by communist extrajudicial thug groups to take place.

  • turco||

    God bless George Mason. We owe him the 1A , 2A , 4A , 5A etc.

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  • Liberty Lover||

    The Constitution protects speech, any speech other than causing a panic. That hate speech is protected is actually a good thing. It allows us to keep track of these people. Silence them and they go underground, where keeping an eye on them becomes much harder. Also allowing hate speech brings dissent, underground these people can work on converts who only hear their view of things.

  • rhkennerly||

    Yeah and you can't make fun of them for their idiot ideas.

  • rhkennerly||

    I do wish they had addressed the question of "who pays." Particularly for wandering freak shows with little intellectual capital to spend, like Milo Y12, whose only purpose seems to be "counting coup" on liberals. Their security bill was well over $500k paid for by taxpayers, I read.

    I'm pretty sure smaller places like C'ville & whatever that burg in KY is called are chosen to "host" events is because the organizers think they can overwhelm local resources, unlike Boston.

    I certainly think disinviting speakers is a bad habit to get into. But a jerk forcing you to burn cash is not optimal, either.

  • rhkennerly||

    I do wish they had addressed the question of "who pays." Particularly for wandering freak shows with little intellectual capital to spend, like Milo Y12, whose only purpose seems to be "counting coup" on liberals. Their security bill was well over $500k paid for by taxpayers, I read.

    I'm pretty sure smaller places like C'ville & whatever that burg in KY is called are chosen to "host" events is because the organizers think they can overwhelm local resources, unlike Boston.

    I certainly think disinviting speakers is a bad habit to get into. But a jerk forcing you to burn cash is not optimal, either.

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