The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees Americans’ freedom of expression. But that doesn’t mean the government or citizens approve of hateful or blasphemous speech. While laws do not ban hate speech, society works to prevent it from occurring in the first place and to lessen its harm when it does. As these examples show, the best way to combat hate speech is to expose it with more speech.
Protesters and counter-protesters
People can express themselves freely, even if they express hate. Counter-protesters often fight hate with their own speech. On September 10, 2011, Terry Jones arrived in Times Square wearing a shirt with an offensive, anti-Muslim slogan and spoke against Islam. People nearby told him he was wrong. One person began to sing the Beatles’ song “All You Need Is Love.” “It’s a free country, folks. Let me hear you sing!” he shouted, sparking an impromptu counter-protest.
Officials use their bully pulpits to denounce hate and encourage tolerance. When Terry Jones threatened to burn a Quran in 2010, President Obama went on television and said, “I just hope he understands that what he’s proposing to do is completely contrary to our values as Americans, that this country has been built on the notions of religious freedom and religious tolerance.”
Leaders of many religions denounce hate speech and hold interfaith services to lessen attention to it. Interfaith coalitions fueled America’s civil rights movement. “Martin Luther King Jr.’s whole career was interfaith,” said historian Taylor Branch. When King led a movement that began in Southern black churches, rabbis, Buddhist leaders and Catholic priests joined, strengthening the message of racial equality. Today, Shoulder-to-Shoulder, made up of 29 national religious groups, stands with American Muslims and upholds American values.
Law enforcement officers
Police protect the rights of all citizens to speak freely; thus hateful speech rarely sparks violence. Because police also serve as examples, they’re trained to respect all people’s religions. For example, the U.S. Justice Department teaches police about the Sikh faith and about the dastar (turban) and kirpan (dagger) worn by observant Sikhs. Officers learn that the kirpan represents a Sikh’s duty to protect the weak and innocent, and should not be viewed as a threat.
Citizens and community leaders
Ordinary people can make a difference. Schoolteachers and neighborhood leaders teach people to consciously develop tolerance and to stand up to bullying when they witness it. Federal money helps leaders in cities and tribal communities teach lessons that can prevent offensive speech. In one program, teenagers made videos to encourage their peers to be kind and tolerant.