George Washington Leadership Lecture features former ACLU president in discussion on hate speech

February 7, 2019

By Matthew Kredell

Contending that hate speech laws are disproportionately enforced against members of minority groups and advocates for their causes, former president of the American Civil Liberties Union Nadine Strossen asserted that freedom of speech laws of the U.S. Constitution aren’t perfect, but that she can’t come up with anything she thinks is less imperfect.

Strossen, author of the book HATE: Why We Should Resist it with Free Speech, Not Censorship, spoke at the USC Town and Gown Ballroom on Jan. 24 for the 2019 George Washington Leadership Lecture, a partnership between the USC Price School of Public Policy and the Fred W. Smith Library for the Study of George Washington.

Nadine Strossen and Dr. David Sloane in discussion. See more photos here.

“Certainly, free speech comes with great hazards and potential harms, and yet I think censorship is even more flawed and more dangerous – not only to freedom of speech, liberty and democracy, but also to goals of equality and justice,” Strossen said.

The George Washington Leadership Lecture, in its sixth year, is a bicoastal lecture series established through a gift from USC alumna Maribeth Borthwick ’73, vice regent for the California chapter of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

“From the publication of the Bill of Rights until now, our commitment in the United States to the unalienable right to freedom of expression has been continually tested in one way or another,” said USC Price Dean Jack H. Knott. “The ACLU was established in 1920 to uphold the ideals of the first amendment and assure they are applied equally. As its president from 1991 to 2008, Nadine ushered a dynamic period of the ongoing fight for free speech. We are delighted to welcome her to the University of Southern California as the keynote speaker for the annual George Washington lecture.”

Kevin Butterfield, executive director of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.

Kevin Butterfield, executive director of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, stated that free speech rights are a legacy of Washington. He noted that it was Washington, in his first inaugural address, who asked Congress to consider “how the characteristic rights of freemen might be more impregnably fortified.”

Butterfield attested that the freedom of speech, freedom of press and right to peaceably assemble articulated in the First Amendment fulfilled the original vision of the framers of the Constitution. The reason they didn’t include the language in the original document was the belief that they should list the powers the government could exercise, and not cloud the issue by listing the powers it can’t exercise.

But ultimately, Butterfield said, “men like President Washington, James Madison and Congress saw clearly that a rigid adherence to their theoretically sound point that a Bill of Rights might not per se be necessary was precisely the wrong way to lead on this issue.” He noted that “they could fulfill the promise of the Constitution by being explicit about things that they believed implicitly and strongly to include personal rights like those that we’ll be talking about tonight.”

USC Price Professor David Sloane led the discussion with Strossen. He noted that, just over the past week, Google News had reported on hate speech controversies in Florida, Nigeria, Serbia, Oklahoma, Washington State and, of course, Washington, D.C.

“Debate over speech goes back to the very foundation of the nation, and trying to effectively yet humanely deal with hate speech is part of the legacy of George Washington that this lecture series was created to examine,” Sloane said. “This stuff is so important to us and how we go forward as a society, as a nation, as a college campus.”

Price School Dean Knott and Dr. Cherrie Short, Associate Dean of Global & Community Initiatives in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, listening to Kevin Butterfield.

Strossen submitted that no two people can agree on what is hate speech. She pointed out that Black Lives Matter, which she views as a champion for justice and other important causes, has been attacked by politicians as hate speech. Even in Massachusetts, there was serious consideration given to designating Black Lives Matter as a hate group. Yet, some students on college campuses have said the phrase “all lives matter” is hate speech.

“When you have such an open-ended, subjective concept, the enforcing authority is going to enforce in accordance with the most powerful, influential sectors of society,” Strossen said.

In the week that the country celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Strossen stressed that Dr. King’s ideas were deeply loathed and feared by some as potentially harmful. Yet, Dr. King said that only love, not hate, can drive out hate.

Dr. Doug Bradburn, president and chief executive officer of George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

She noted that the imminent harm principle that does allow for censorship is not based on the content of the message but the context. If the message directly causes a threat of imminent harm, it can and should be punished.

Strossen provided the example of Charlottesville. She contended that the ideas should have been met with non-censorial measures, but the actions necessitated a stronger response.

“When they marched en masse brandishing lighted torches and firearms, in that context – even if they said nothing – that constitutes what the law calls a true threat,” Strossen said.

Strossen advocates for counter-speech as the appropriate response to hate speech. Counter-speech can take a number of forms, including a debate, denunciation, demonstration or protest.

“From the research on my book, I was more persuaded than ever about how ineffective censorship is, but I was also more persuaded than ever about how effective counter-speech can be,” Strossen said.