Waldron on the Regulation of Hate Speech
This essay reviews and evaluates the arguments in Jeremy Waldron's book "The Harm in Hate Speech" (Harvard University Press, 2012). We may summarize the argument for Waldron’s titular view as follows. First, the “harm in hate speech” results primarily from speech that is written rather than spoken. Second, the harm in question is damage to the “dignity” of vulnerable people based on defamation related to certain characteristics they share with a group, such that they are then deprived of the “assurance…that they can count on being treated justly” (85) in daily life because they are deemed to be “not worthy of equal citizenship” (39). Third, this harm to “the dignitary order of society” (92) is distinct from the individual offense hateful speech may cause, the latter not constituting a ground for regulation on Waldron’s view. Fourth, although regulating to prevent this harm may have some costs, the benefits justify the normal practice in democratic societies of regulating such speech (e.g., 151 ff.). I argue two main points: first, that Waldron's distinction between harm to dignity versus offense is neither stable nor clear; and second, that Waldron's failure to explain why harm to the dignitary order of society is the particular harm of speech that warrants legal redress raises a variety of questions about his view. If the moral urgency animating Waldron's case is the need to protect the vulnerable from harm, why limit that to the harm of losing assurance of "equal standing" or (as he sometimes says) the psychological harm of "distress"?
Consider, for example, what I call "the Ryan case: a powerful congressman, Paul Ryan, proposes to eviscerate and eventually eliminate Medicare, thus threatening to deprive millions of vulnerable, elderly people of essential healthcare. Surely assurance of access to healthcare when in need is at least as important as assurance of dignity in public. Why is this harm, then, not also a candidate for legal redress? I argue that Waldron's view does not have the resources to distinguish the Ryan case, but I do not offer that as a reductio of his position. To the contrary, it seems to me a virtue of Waldron's book is that by making an often vivid case for the harm that the content of speech can inflict on the vulnerable, Waldron forces us to take seriously Herbert Marcuse's old worry: namely, that while the toleration of harmful speech "in conversation, in academidc discussion...in the scientific enterprise, in private religion" is justified, perhaps "society cannot be indiscriminate where the pacification of existence, where freedom and happiness themselves are at stake." Waldron does not explore that implication of his argument, but it is one that warrants renewed consideration if one shares Waldron's core intuition that harm to the vulnerable, even harm inflicted by speech, deserves legal notice.