Panelists discuss the line between free and hate speech

Forum tackled the tough but timely topic.


The difference between hate speech and free speech is a hot-button issue in light of recent protests like the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last year. A panel held at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission on Saturday discussed the difficult topic.

Danielle Holley-Walker, dean of Howard University School of Law, Arthur Hardy-Doubleday, representing the Martha’s Vineyard NAACP, and the Rev. Stephen Raschaad Hoggard of Abyssinian Baptist Church made up the panel, with Gretchen Bennett, former deputy director of voter protection for Hillary for America/Democratic Coordinated Campaign, as moderator.

Bennett defined hate speech as “speech used to attack a group of people based on identity.” She acknowledged that the issue around hate versus free speech lies around where the line is between the right to equality and nondiscrimination and the right to free speech, and “the line has never been clear.”

Holley-Walker said that how we’ve always handled hate speech is countering it with more speech. However, “the issue is that the truth has been questioned.” It’s no longer enough to say what the truth is. People also have to give evidence why their truth is true.

Hardy-Doubleday built off that thought. “Omarosa knows that the administration is going to make her look like an angry black woman,” he said, referencing Omarosa Manigault Newman, who was a former aide to President Trump and upon being fired revealed she had made recordings of what was said in the Situation Room. “She has the receipts to show she wasn’t,” Hardy-Doubleday said.

Bennett brought the discussion around to talk about the instances of alt-right protests, for example in Charlottesville or Boston, and how those toe the line of free and hate speech.

“A lot of what they’re doing isn’t speech,” said Holley-Walker, referencing the rise in hate crimes, especially against Muslims. “Yes, hate speech gives rise to hateful actions,” Holley-Walker said, however, the law has done little to censor words unless they lead to specific action.

Hoggard brought up the issue around the psychological harm that hate speech can cause to an individual and group. “There is a direct correlation that we don’t speak of,” he said.

Hardy-Doubleday said, however, that having this hate speech in the open means that people can prosecute it.

Holley-Walker said, “Having things in the open can be harmful for a sense of well-being in society and in community. We are coming to a crisis point … Donald Trump didn’t bring this on. He’s a symptom, not the disease.”

So what’s to be done?

Americans need to think about where the nation is going in order to know how to solve the problem of hate speech, Hoggard said. It’s also important, he said, to have healthy dialogues.

Bennett dove more into specifics. “How do we have these conversations?” she asked, “No one is reaching out to me.”

Holley-Walker advocated for a return to the basics of civil society, not civility in terms of being quiet, but in terms of saying something when you think there’s something wrong.

Bennett turned the conversation to issues around religious expression, and if that’s an adequate justification for free speech.

Hoggard said, “Religious identity shouldn’t be used to denigrate another person.”

The other panelists turned the discussion toward protecting the Civil Rights Act. Holley-Walker said that she is scared that if Brett Kavanaugh is sworn in on the Supreme Court, the Civil Rights Act will be struck down. “I’m not being alarmist,” she said.

So is there a viable limit on hate speech? Bennett asked.

Hardy-Doubleday cautioned against censoring the American public too much. “We need to believe in our ability to speak as a society,” he said.

Holley-Walker agreed that hate speech codes are difficult to enforce. People should be able to say things others don’t like; however, the line is when groups don’t feel safe anymore.

The panel was organized by Bison on the Vineyard, a group of Howard University alumni, and held along with numerous other events as part of Bison on the Vineyard 2018.