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Anti-Semitism and the First Amendment

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Human Rights
Wordcount: 2759 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Thesis statement: Any form of anti-Semitic hate speech in the United States should not be given First Amendment protection as it has proven to cause violence.


The American Library Association defines free speech in the United States and mentions that it is founded in a “belief that freedom of speech requires the government to strictly protect robust debate on matters of public concern even when such debate devolves into distasteful, offensive, or hateful speech that causes others to feel grief, anger, or fear.” (Kpekoll, 2018). Hate speech is a topic that seems to always come up and be challenged when it comes to what is too hateful. There are numerous cases around free speech and the First Amendment. Hate speech is one of those topics that has a lot of gray area and can run into misinterpretations and concern for individuals, and groups of people. Group libel laws, defamation, and other speech laws are in place to set a tone for what speech is welcomed and what is unacceptable. Hate speech is an area that has grown of the past few years and is projected to continue to grow if something is not changed.

Nazis in Skokie by Donald Downs:

Donald Downs is the author of a book titled Nazis in Skokie in which he challenges the doctrine of “content neutrality” and presents an argument for free speech when it is intentionally harmful. Downs mentions that judges in fundamental hate speech court cases have “ignores the difference between targeted hate messages and non-targeted forms” he goes on to say that this ignoring this difference “fails to account for the difference between speech which is inherently or directly assaultive and speech which engenders tension but is not inherently assaultive” (Downs, 1986, 122). This is a critical point in my argument. In some instances, speech crosses a line that is in nature, dangerous and is likely to lead to harm. This speech should not have basic constitutional rights as it can be harmful expression. This leads to the question: when is hate speech tolerated and protected?

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Downs explains that in the case, the court “ignored that fact that the NSPA hoped that the proposed demonstration would inflict trauma and engender a hostile crowd reaction” and that the display of the swastika “is ‘symbolic political speech intended to convey to the public the beliefs of those who convey it’” (Downs, 1986, 71). This seems similar to the case of Feiner v. New York and how they parallel the ideas of when speech incites violence in a crowd. Something when as much hate filled power as the swastika should not be protected speech. The swastika is a symbol of the German Nazi party, even if it has innocent roots. This symbol reminds the Jewish community of the most horrible time in history. It is offensive and disrespectful to allow people to use this flag because of its meaning. Likewise, the use of the word “nigger” is offensive and has racist roots and thus, should not be protected under the First Amendment. Freedom of speech is important and embedded in our history; however, this right has limits. Not all speech is acceptable to say in society. The United States is melting pot of all religions, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Expressions, phrases, symbols, etc. that are attached to racially or religiously charged hate, should not be protected. The people being targeting in these incidents, might not all suffer from physical harm, but they suffer from loss of power, lower reputation, loss of job opportunities, and much more considering a part of their character has been damaged.

Downs argues that the best option to prevent such hateful events is to forbid expression. One of Downs’ main principles is the idea that as a society, we have taken the need to protect speech to be more important than simple societal values. He pulls various examples; such as, republican virtue/community security, and the free speech principle/the harm principle. Free speech is a fundamental principle of democracy and is a part of what makes the United States such a desirable country. Downs mentions that racist expression can have benefits and usually does, but the benefits do not outweigh the harm. It is crucial to balance these two aspects of expression and recognize the importance of the expression on society. To achieve a proper balance, Downs suggest “the more the substantial and direct harm, the more compelling the principle of ultimate ends” (Downs, 1986, 000). This is a very interesting suggestion as it has to do with the Kant principle of ethics. Kant’s ethical theory is all about the ends justifying the means.

 Hate speech and ethics go hand in hand. Everyone has different morals, values, and ethical reasonings. However, there are some actions and decisions that are considered, overall, to be more ethical than others. Ethics plays an important role in society and it applies to hate speech in the same way. An important question to ask in regard to ethics and speech is: does ethical coincide with legal? Since hate speech is legal, does that make it ethical? Legality and ethical are used very similarly as people assume that since something is illegal, it is automatically unethical and vice versa. Although, that is not always the case. For example, slavery was legal, but completely unethical. At the time it may have seemed ethical to the people who had slaves, but it was never an ethical decision.

Recent Incidents:

 At Columbia University, there were two swastikas and the slur “yid” spray-painted in red on a Jewish professor’s office walls. Vox reported:

While these two events are the most high-profile anti-Semitic crimes of the week, they are not isolated. Goucher College students woke up on Thursday morning to find swastikas spray painted on their Maryland campus. It was the second time this occurred this month; a suspect was arrested. In New Jersey, two middle schools and a high school, all in Union County, found swastikas and other hateful graffiti drawn on their school property as well. (Sheppard, 2018)

 These incidents took place this year and continue to take place more frequently. Incidents like these are strong forms of hate speech and reflect true disrespect. The United States is built off the foundation of diversity. Speech that is hateful, disrespectful, and violence provoking should have no FA protection and be treated harsher. People see acts like this and think it is okay to have those types of views, whether it be about any group. The United States should not allow this type of action and cause people to feel threatened and in fear of danger everywhere they go.

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The Pittsburgh synagogue shooting killed 11 worshippers in the “deadliest attack ever on Jews in the United States” according to a CNN article about the incident (Andone & Murphy, 2018). The attacker targeted Jews online and made numerous anti-Semitic comments regarding the attack. More religious groups are being targeted in the United States as of the last few years. Illegal immigrants are constantly being targeted, along with minority groups, and it is only increasing at an alarming rate. Hate speech is a main contributor to this violence and it is only getting worse and continue if we allow it for much longer. There should be stricter laws when it comes to what speech is and is not inciting violence. According to PBS, “Jews make up only about 2 percent of the U.S. population, but in annual FBI data they repeatedly account for more than half of the Americans targeted by hate crimes committed due to religious bias” (Crary, 2018). An article by James Kirchick of the Washington Post suggests “the rise of Trump in U.S. political life has coincided with a rise in anti-Semitism, among other forms of bigotry. Yes, correlation is not causation, but Trump nonetheless appeals to sentiments and animosities that don’t bode well for the future of Jewish life in this country” (Kirchick, 2018). Anti-Semitism has multiple sources and thus, one person cannot be blamed. However, the Trump administration has triggered lots of hate related crimes and made the United States feel more divided than ever. Kirchick also stated

“No one other than the shooter is responsible for the mass murder in Pittsburgh, but there are many people — including those in public office and in digital media — contributing to the rise of the anti-Semitic sentiments the shooter allegedly shouted. If you think words—especially an American president’s words—don’t matter, think again”. (Kirchick, 2018)

It is important for the people running our country to have values that are supportive of all the communities in the United States. When people see someone of authority discriminating or using hate speech, it is viewed as acceptable and even encouraged. This type of speech should not be tolerated in any form by any person of the United States.

Anti-Semitic views stem from the Holocaust area in Germany. Anti-Semitic, neo-Nazis, white nationalists, etc., have deep roots in the US and those people believe that the Jews could be linked to the bad times in the United States. Synagogues have amplified their security measures in light of anti-Semitic incidents and to try to stay safe while worshipping. Many other religious groups have similar precautions as they are also not safe. Citizens of the United States need to be held accountable for your actions, not just criminal actions. We have strict laws when it comes to defamation, yet not hate speech. Developing set rules for discriminatory speech would set a guideline for treating each other with respect and suppressing any comments that would cause harm to any groups. In April 2014, Frazier Glenn Miller Jr. fatally shot a 69-year-old man and his 14-year-old grandson at a Jewish community center in suburban Kansas City. During his trial, Miller said he shot his victims because he wanted to kill Jewish people before he dies (CBS/AP, 2015). This type of thinking is what scares people and arouses danger in communities. It is unbelievable that there are still people in the United States that have such strong anti-Semitic views. Of course, there are going to be people who are filled with hate; however, we should make expressing these hatefully charged emotions not protected as a freedom of speech. Conversely, imminent violence towards a person or group is not protected speech, which is a good step. Hate speech should be added to this as for many reasons already discussed, hate speech fuels others and leads to violence. Additionally, when hate crimes go unpunished or underreported, others do not take it seriously and misunderstand the real impact it has on the targeted group. This leads to other incidents occurring and creating a cycle of hate fueled incidents and speech.

Defending my enemy

In 1977, Frank Collin wanted to host a Nazi march in Skokie, Illinois. Collin was leader of the National Socialist Party of America and Skokie was home to one of the largest Holocaust survivor populations in the United States. The book titled Defending my enemy by a director at the ACLU, Aryeh Neier, details what happened concerning this Nazi march. Days before the march, a leaflet turned up in Skokie that read “We carry the swastika because it is the ancient symbol of our white people throughout history and the world. It is a sign of total resistance against the niggerization of our country” (Neier, 2012, 43). People were scared, especially the Jewish community who had been receiving threatening calls for weeks prior. Although this march was protested and even put on trial, the march went on. This group has the right to march and speak their values under the rights of the First Amendment. The leaflets passed out should show how hurtful and powerful this group is in the United States and how that leaflet would cause terror in many communities. It is not right or fair that an entire group of people are terrified because one group wants to attack them for their own selfish reasons. Most people in the United States come from immigrants. White people did not inhabit this land from the start, they have taken over the land from the Native Americans, as taught in grade school. Stating that our country is “white” and is only pure if it is white is simply incorrect and propaganda that has been bestowed on us by uneducated, selfish people. 

 The author goes on to discuss the consequences of the Nazi march and how it has affected its community and free speech entirely. “The best consequence of the Nazi’s proposal to march in Skokie is that is produced more speech, a great deal. It stimulated more discussion of the evils of Nazism and of the Holocaust” (Neier, 2012, 145). It is important to look at all sides of an event and the impacts it has, good or bad. Horrible incidents always seem to spark a conversation and fuel those who find it infuriating. This is wonderful for awareness and possibility for change in the community and law.  Neier goes on to say, “The worst consequence is that the arguments against permitting the march have fostered the impression that a community can assert that those whose views are anathema to it can be forbidden to enter its boundaries” (Neier, 2012, 145). This is an interesting consequence and an important one. With freedom of speech and the restriction of certain speech, it is crucial to not exclude ideas that are different from the community’s values However, racist and discriminatory speech should never be acceptable. When speech is threatening, hateful, and incites violence, it should be restricted. 

Work Cited

  • Andone, D., & Murphy, P. P. (2018, October 29). Hate crime charges filed in Pittsburgh synagogue shooting that left 11 dead. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/27/us/pittsburgh-synagogue-active-shooter/index.html
  • Chokshi, N. (2018, November 15). Kroger Shooting Suspect Is Charged With Hate Crimes in Killings of 2 Black People. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/15/us/kroger-shooting-charges-louisville.html?rref=collection/timestopic/Hate Crimes&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=collection
  • Crary, D. (2018, October 29). Before Pittsburgh shooting, anti-Semitic incidents were on the rise. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/before-pittsburgh-shooting-anti-semitic-incidents-were-on-the-rise
  • CBS/AP. (2015, November 10). ​Man convicted in Jewish site killings is sentenced to death. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/man-convicted-in-kansas-jewish-site-killings-is-sentenced-to-death/
  • Kirchick, J. (2018, November 21). How much blame does Trump truly bear for the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting? Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-much-blame-does-trump-truly-bear-for-the-pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting/2018/11/19/f69ef8f0-e9f2-11e8-bbdb-72fdbf9d4fed_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.f9ec217f93cc
  • Kpekoll. (2018, July 11). Hate Speech and Hate Crime. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/hate
  • Neier, A. (2012). Defending my enemy: American Nazis, the Skokie case, and the risks of freedom. New York: International Debate Education Association.
  • Sheppard, E. (2018, December 01). Swastika vandalism hit high-profile targets in both New York and California this week. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2018/11/30/18120436/swastika-vandalism-hit-new-york-california-anti-semitism


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