Amicus Curiae Lecture Series Tackles Speech Censorship

Sarah Davis, Staff Reporter

The topic of free speech and censorship roamed well around Marshall’s campus on Tuesday, Nov. 1.

Members of the Marshall community had the opportunity to attend a lecture on censorship hosted by the West Virginia Humanities Council this evening at the Brad D. Smith Foundation Hall. The lecture was entitled “HATE: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship.” 

The speaker was Nadine Strossen, an activist for civil liberties. In addition to communicating the importance of civil rights across the nation, Strossen served as the first female president of the American Civil Liberties Union from early 1991 to late 2008. 

Strossen’s appearance to Marshall has been in the works since early 2020, according to host Patricia Proctor. 

“We could not be more fortunate—at this moment in time, at this junction—to have someone with such deep knowledge and experience here to address this very important issue,” Proctor said. 

Those in attendance welcomed Strossen as she made her opening remarks. The lecture was based on Strossen’s book of the same name as the lecture released in 2018. 

Strossen provided three main points in her lecture: the misconceptions of the First Amendment, censorship’s ineffectiveness to silence hate speech and alternatives to censorship.  

When it comes to the interpretation of the First Amendment, Strossen combated the misconception that there are no exceptions to what it protects. Although the U.S. government cannot restrict speech solely on its idea or belief, it can if the speech indicates a severe threat to society. 

“In a nutshell, government may restrict speech if it directly causes or threatens certain specific serious eminent harm, such as violence,” Strossen said. 

This precaution is known as the emergency principle, and the U.S. Supreme Court has regulated its use. One example of this is “fighting words,” which was defined by Strossen as a “direct, personal insult that’s likely to provoke a violent reaction when addressed to an ordinary person.” Strossen used this example to reinforce her point that speech can be restricted based on the threat scale, not disagreement. 

Strossen then discussed the idea that censorship that exceeds the standard of the emergency principle is not adequate. The audience learned that the protection of free speech was the stepping stone for many rights held by Americans today. 

In recent years, Strossen pointed to the Marriage Equality Act of 2011 quoted law professor Dale Carpenter by saying, “It is no stretch to say that the First Amendment created gay America.” With this, Strossen reiterated that there is no correlation between censorship and equal rights. Therefore, she referred to this type of censorship as “counterproductive.”  

Strossen added that a potential censorship law would never eliminate every word of hate speech; rather, it would suppress speech that should be protected. 

For her third and final point, Strossen described alternative routes to eliminating harmful words of hate speech that do not include censorship.  

“Censoring hate speech, when you think about it, is a prohibition strategy. It’s seeking to dry out the supply and consumption of a dangerous item—in this case, controversial speech—by punishing those who supply and consume it,” she said. 

Strossen believes that compassion is the most effective way to combat hate speech. She highlighted an organization named “Life After Hate.” This non-profit organization helps to reconcile those who wish they could take back their words of hate speech after they have been spoken. She said it is also essential to learn skills that help us identify misinformation. That way, we can stop those words of hate speech from invading our lives. These strategies are more effective than censorship will ever be, according to Strossen. 

Strossen ended her lecture with a quote from civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. saying, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”