The following is an excerpt from NEWSWEEK ARCHIVES | August 16, 2017 | Newsweek.com |
Newsweek published this story under the headline of “Time to Outlaw Racial Slurs?” on June 6, 1988. In light of escalating racial tensions in the United States, Newsweek is republishing the story.
It was only a make-believe trial in a moot court, but the case could hardly have been more disturbing. The fictitious defendant, Jesse Stump, has been the main speaker at an imaginary rally held by the American Aryan Revolutionary Front. In a public hall bedecked with swastikas, Stump gave a speech laced with racial epithets that called for the lynching of blacks and the burning of synagogues, "preferably with the [Jews] inside." According to a fictitious policeman present in the hall, the mood of the crowd was ugly, though no violence seemed imminent. Stump was arrested in the middle of his screed and charged under a law prohibiting "group defamation" -- malicious, degrading, hurtful speech aimed at a racial or ethnic group. A trial court found him guilty and sentenced him to 60 days in prison. The question posed in the moot court, the centerpiece of a legal symposium held recently at Long Island's Hofstra University, was whether such group-defamation statutes are constitutional. Is the outlawing of racist speech consistent with First Amendment guarantees of free expression?
Most mainstream legal scholars are convinced the answer is no. But changing attitudes -- in society at large and among young legal academics -- have created a wave of interest in group-defamation bans. The scholarly ferment began in the late '70s, part of a larger national debate over whether a neo-Nazi group should be allowed to march in Skokie, Ill. The feminist movement played its part, raising concerns about the defamatory aspects of pornography. But by far the greatest impetus has come in recent years with the rise of racial violence, including incidents like the deadly 1986 assault in Howard Beach, N.Y., in which a gang of white youths attacked three black men. Proponents of group-defamation laws are convinced there is a link between racial slurs and violence. According to Hofstra law professor Monroe Freedman, continuing tensions can only fuel wider interest in banning hate speech. "It's still a minority view," he says, "but it is germinating."
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