Talking trash: What’s more important, human dignity or freedom of speech?
The lead article in the sports section of the July 1 New York Times was about an Italian football player of African descent who scored both goals in his team’s defeat of Germany in the Euro 2012 semifinals. It was not an article about racism, but it noted in passing that “he has endured racial abuse, monkey chants from Spanish fans, then more taunting chants from Croatian fans and a banana tossed onto the field.” That is more or less what one expects at many European football matches these days. Virulent expressions of hate have also become commonplace in other aspects of European public life with the rise of political parties such as Jobbik in Hungary, Golden Dawn in Greece, and Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom in The Netherlands. Also, of course, while not so blatant in their expressions of racism, mainstream leaders such as former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy and former President Nicolas Sarkozy of France have found it politically expedient to provoke agitation against the Roma and against African immigrants.
One need go no further than the “stop and frisk” practices of the New York City police to realize that racism also remains a problem in the United States. Yet so far as the overt expression of verbal racism is concerned, its practice in this country seems to be at a relatively low ebb. When political figures such as Trent Lott or George Allen make statements that have a racist flavor, they are likely to pay a penalty. And it is difficult to imagine that present-day sports events would be regularly marked by displays of racial hate.
It seems odd, therefore, for Jeremy Waldron, a prominent legal philosopher who divides his time between professorships at Oxford and New York University’s School of Law, to publish The Harm in Hate Speech at this time. His elegantly written book argues that the European approach to this issue, in which the law gives primacy to the protection of the dignity—the key term in his book—of those who are the targets of hate speech, is far preferable to the American approach, in which the protection of freedom of speech takes precedence. To be more persuasive, Waldron ought to be able to show that the European way is preventing harms that are afflicting the US. Plainly, that is not the case.