Oliver Kamm—“There goes liberty”—attacks Steven Rose for writing that hate speech ought to be banned because it violates the human rights of its victims. There are tricky debates to be had about what counts as a properly human right, but I don’t think there’s much mileage in forensically examining Rose on that point. Kamm’s point is that hate speech—unlike, say, racist violence—doesn’t harm its victims, strictly speaking. That’s a highly dubious proposition: being bombarded with the message that you are of lesser worth than others, are disgusting, repellent, vicious or stupid, may well cause you significant harms (and where genocidal crimes have taken place, it is often against the background of such messages being prevalent). But we can let that go as an instance of Kamm’s lack of imagination. What Kamm really has in his sights are restrictions on speech that are alleged to flow from the idea that we owe one another respect, have duties of civility to our fellow citizens, and so forth. He’s surely wrong on this point, and for two reasons: first, in a a democracy of equal citizens it is important to see to it that the conditions are in place for people to participate as equals; second, no-one has any legitimate interest in the protection of hate speech, as such.* If particular groups are so stigmatized and marginalized because of hate-speech messages that their members cannot get their voices heard in the public sphere (they may speak, but most people will not listen to people like them) then the freedom and equality of citizens is undermined, and the formal right that those people have to legal, civil and political equality is of lesser value than the formally similar rights of others. Far from liberty being endangered by hate-speech legislation it may—and whether it is depends very much on the specific social and historical circumstances—ensure that many people continue to enjoy effective liberty. Kamm also writes: “I do not … regard it as any legitimate part of public policy to eradicate bigotry.” Even if the elimination of bigotry were not a legitimate part of public policy, the elimination of its public expression might well be, for the reasons having to do with the freedom and equality of citizens I just mentioned. But, of course, the elimination of bigotry is an important and legitimate part of at least one area of public policy: the education system. Children should, contra, Kamm be taught that racism (along with sexism, homophobia etc) is deplorable and it is very much part of the government’s business to see that they are.
*They may have a legitimate interest in speech that would fall foul of hate-speech legislation, which is one reason to be very wary about passing such legislation and to be careful in formulating it, but hate-speech, as such, has no value and hence no claim to protection. The speech that Rose implicitly thought ought to be banned, that of James Watson about the intelligence of Africans, isn’t, strictly speaking, in that category, and banning it would endanger the legitimate expression of scientific opinion. Kamm, however, opposes Rose on the wrong grounds.