The American people are known worldwide for their willingness to speak their minds, regardless of their level of knowledge. The First Amendment protects our outspoken nature, and most Americans are grateful for it. However, it’s possible to abuse free speech, and many cross the line between opinionated banter and cruel diatribe.
Leslie Jones, one of the stars of the new adaptation of “Ghostbusters,” recently fell victim to hate speech. Much of the reaction that she received, primarily on Twitter, had very little to do with the movie and instead focused on her race and gender.
A few of the hundreds of tweets directed at her read as follows: “Don’t let the #Ghostbusters bombing get you down. You’re a shoo-in to star in the Harambe motion picture as the man himself,” “Your Ghostbusters isn’t the first to have an ape in it” and “Big lipped coon” repeated eight times. Such unnecessary and hurtful words lend nothing to potentially improving the actress or movie, and instead seem aimed purely to do emotional harm.
Thus far, the response by Twitter has been minimal and ineffective. Milo Yiannopoulos, a long-time twitter user associated with the Gamergate controversy was the first to experience any punishments from Twitter for misconduct when his account was shut down in response to his attacks on Jones. This is a step in the right direction, but already Yiannopoulos and his followers argue that in shutting down his account, Twitter is undermining his First Amendment rights.
Jones is not the first to have a difficult time on Twitter. Journalism junior Sara Lopez changed her Twitter handle in response to a deluge of angry tweets. Respondents, furious that she dared to criticize the quality of her high school, called her a “ho” and even attempted to learn her address in an effort to, presumably, further their abuse in person.
“There has to be a level of respect if you are going to state your opinion.” Lopez said. “There is a difference between questioning everything and fighting everything.”
In more than 80 percent of European countries, including Germany, France and the United Kingdom, hate speech is largely prohibited and subject to criminal sanctions. These countries prove the ability and efficacy of such laws, but unfortunately the discussion of how and even if they can by implemented domestically usually stops when the First Amendment argument, a favorite of racists and bigots, is raised.
Law professor H.W. Perry has been traveling Europe to deliver speeches about the wide gap between the U.S. and other countries when it comes to freedom of speech.
“Some of the European states have pretty robust protection of freedom of speech,” Perry said. “Particularly Germany has laws that balance free speech with claimed rights of human dignity.”
Perry followed this by clarifying an important point: Many people misunderstand the First Amendment. It limits the government’s control over what people say far more than it does the citizenry.
“The right of freedom of speech doesn’t mean that you have the right to say these things without being criticized,” said Perry. “Free speech doesn’t mean that you have the right to be a racist or phobic. For the most part it just means that the government can’t stop it.”
And so we march into a new era in which hate speech is less acceptable socially, but runs rampant online. We must put limits on this abhorrent and aggressive underbelly of society.
Obviously curbing hate speech won’t be easy. But our country has changed drastically over the past several decades, and most people would say for the better. When it comes to stopping hate speech, giving up is simply not an option.
Bonfiglio is a journalism junior from Oak Creek, Colorado. Follow her on Twitter @NahilaBonfiglio.