“Should the legal system protect or punish the kind of inflammatory speech and drawings that prompted the assault on the Charlie Hebdo offices?” The U.S. Supreme Court in recent years has interpreted our First Amendment so as to ratify and strengthen protection for such speech; Europe, on the other hand, has moved toward punishing it, both from disapproval in itself and, increasingly, on the rationale that allowing it might lead to violence.
In a new Cato Policy Analysis, “Hate Speech Laws: Ratifying the Assassin’s Veto,” First Amendment litigator and Cato adjunct scholar Robert Corn-Revere defends America’s as the correct approach. Executive summary excerpt:
The United States Supreme Court has generally restricted government limits on speech. Some speech, however, does not receive protection, including expressions closely tied to violence. In the past, “fighting words” were judged unprotected by the First Amendment; the development of Court doctrine has largely eliminated this exception. American jurisprudence is based on the assumption that protections for freedom of expression will not long endure if they can be abandoned when the message is particularly repellant or its target especially sympathetic.
European law also protects freedom of expression, although in a less robust way than does U.S. law. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights subjects freedom of speech to important limitations understood generally as “hate speech.” In contrast to the United States, officials may apply criminal or civil sanctions to prohibited political advocacy.
The United States faces a choice. Should it defend the right to offend, or opt instead to champion a right not to be offended? We have learned from hard experience in the United States that free expression cannot long survive without protecting outrageous and offensive speech.