As progressive activists work within the free market to change the cost dynamic of hate speech, conservative reactionaries are fighting back with hollow appeals to the First Amendment.
Efforts to combat hate speech have long clashed with First Amendment ideals, despite the damaging effects that hateful and stereotyping rhetoric has on its targets and society as a whole.
Discussing the tragic shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, MSNBC's Karen Finney recently explained how racially charged rhetoric serves to "reinforce and validate old stereotypes" and create an environment where "those festering stereotypes had lethal consequences."
Finney's analysis echoes criticism of Fox News host Eric Bolling for using racially charged rhetoric when criticizing President Obama. In 2011, Bolling accused Obama of "chugging 40s" and hosting a "hoodlum in the hizzy" -- a reference to the president of Gabon. Experts on race and culture said Bolling's comments tapped into "very old racist imagery" and were "designed to link President Obama to media stereotypes of black masculinity as violent, irresponsible and/or transgressive of social norms."
Finney, a former spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, came under fire from the right for her comments, but her argument is fully in line with academic research on hate speech. Finney, to her credit, is not backing down.
In Must We Defend Nazis? Hate Speech, Pornography, and the New First Amendment, First Amendment scholars Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic explained how verbal tags create space to validate stereotypes:
Verbal tags provide a convenient means of categorization so that individuals may be treated as members of a class and assumed to share all the negative attitudes imputed to the class. They thus make it easier for their users to justify their own superior position with respect to others.
This type of verbal tagging was on display when Fox News' Geraldo Rivera argued that Martin, who was wearing a hooded sweatshirt the night he was killed, "wore an outfit that allowed someone to respond in this irrational, overzealous way." Rivera's comments validated stereotyping that casts suspicion on a young black man based not on his behavior, but on his appearance. Rivera has since acknowledged that his comments "obscured the main point," while simultaneously claiming his advice that minority children avoid hoodies was "potentially life-saving."
How to combat objectionable rhetoric that categorizes, scapegoats, and stokes fears of "the other" is a separate question.
In a 2005 paper (subscription required), economist Dhammika Dharmapala and University of Chicago Law School professor Richard McAdams demonstrated that affixing a price on hate speech can act as a deterrent and concluded that "raising the costs of hate speech will tend to deter hate crime."
Dharmapala and McAdams noted that much of the debate over how to combat hate speech to date has focused on the tension between protecting targets of hate speech and the First Amendment rights of speakers.
Recent experience has demonstrated the effects of working within the market to create a cost to hate speech.
After Glenn Beck claimed that President Obama was a "racist" who harbored a "deep-seated hatred for white people," activists began to educate advertisers about the rhetoric they were sponsoring; and hundreds of advertisers made the choice not to sponsor his Fox News show.
This model has been utilized more recently in response to the hate speech of Rush Limbaugh.
Journalist Jamila Bey explained how Limbaugh's misogynistic attacks on Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, who testified about the benefits of contraception coverage, constituted "hate speech" designed to "silence women's voices by making them afraid." Bey explained:
What Limbaugh did - and does frequently - is "slut-shaming" and it's no less hateful and derogatory than racial slurs.
This is a textbook attack on a woman for being female and for speaking up.
The campaign to educate advertisers and radio affiliates that broadcast Limbaugh's show has increased the cost of Rush Limbaugh's hate speech and bullying, resulting in dozens of lost advertisers. The advertiser rush to drop Limbaugh's show has led to reactionary complaints that Limbaugh's First Amendment rights are in jeopardy. This appeal to the First Amendment can't withstand scrutiny: the free market is simply putting a price on Limbaugh's hateful rhetoric, as it did with Beck.
These same fraudulent complaints appealing to the First Amendment were raised to defend Dr. Laura Schlessinger when advertisers made the choice to stop sponsoring her radio show. Schlessinger sparked a controversy in 2010 after she launched into an extended tirade during which she "articulated the 'n' word all the way out" 11 times. The fallout from those comments was swift, as advertisers who were made aware of what she said began to drop her show. Schlessinger soon announced that she would be ending her radio show, claiming that she had lost her First Amendment rights.
The First Amendment properly establishes limits to the government policing speech, but increasingly the free market creates opportunities to put a high price on hate speech.