‘Unfit people saying hate speech is free speech.’: Is LeBron James right?
- On October 29, 2022, in response to a Business Insider report claiming Twitter was experiencing a rapid rise in the use of a racial slur by users simultaneous to Elon Musk’s acquisition of the platform, NBA Lakers star, LeBron James, tweeted, “this is scary AF. So many damn unfit people saying hate speech is free speech..”
- Elon Musk responded to James, retweeting Twitter employee Yoel Roth, who said, “We’ve taken action to ban the users involved in this trolling campaign — and are going to continue working to address this in the days to come to make Twitter safe and welcoming for everyone.”
- On October 27, the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, successfully acquired Twitter for $44 billion, tweeting out later that day, “The bird is freed.” He said in an April interview that having a “broadly inclusive” public platform is “extremely important to the future of civilization.”
- Freedom of Speech is the first of ten amendments found in the Bill of Rights. The US Constitution was ratified in 1791, and the First Amendment includes the freedom of religion, press, assembly, and the right to bear arms.
Following billionaire Elon Musk's purchase of Twitter, the use of the n-word on the platform reportedly rose by over 500% in under a week. LeBron James quickly took to the platform to call out the new owner to express his concerns and how these actions had revealed hate speech masked as free speech. Hate speech is any derogatory language used to attack any group of individuals. Of course, the n-word sits comfortably in this category as it was historically used to dehumanize enslaved Africans and their descendants. The slur has still been used to insult Black Americans throughout the centuries. Its context simply cannot be separated from the word, and its use promotes and maintains racist and harmful ideologies.
Allowing slurs to be used on a public platform can incentivize others to partake in more verbally abusive behaviors or perhaps even participate in future dangerous attacks. Social media is often cited as an easy way to radicalize young people into participating in worse behaviors.
Further, free speech is the constitutional right of any American; they can express any ideas they choose. However, some of those ideas have negative consequences for oneself or others. Spreading hurtful rumors or verbally assaulting someone can have dire consequences, such as legal action or even job termination. These consequences prove that society's tolerance for certain words and ideas is limited and that harmful speech and language deserve to be restricted. LeBron is right. Equating hate speech and free speech has negative consequences that a public company like Twitter should not brush off.
LeBron James tweeting insinuating hate speech is not 'free speech' showcases his shallow understanding of free speech. The US Constitution and the first amendment make no exception for hateful speech or expression. Society must understand hate speech is protected speech, whether people like it or not. Further, there is a difference between hateful speech and hateful conduct, meaning 'conduct that targets an individual, such as violence, harassment, intimidation, or invasions of privacy are, and ought to be, prohibited.'
Even the frequently more left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) states, 'Controversial, critical, confrontational, and challenging speech is an essential part of any successful college education. Without it, institutions of higher education cannot truly be said to be preparing students for the world outside of the ivory tower.' Though hate speech may be uncomfortable, it grants an opportunity to understand global and interpersonal perspectives.
Moreover, views on what is hateful can change rapidly and lead to frequent censoring of those who dissent from the narrative of what is currently considered 'hate speech.' In fact, censoring hate speech doesn't necessarily stop hate but can amplify it by drawing attention to the thing deemed 'hateful.' Likewise, the definition of hate speech can change based on who holds the most institutional power. Those people/the leading party can use censorship to remove peoples' right to free speech to suppress resistance and retain power. The answer to 'hate speech' is free speech, not censorship. Allowing all speech in the public square benefits society. We must continue defending our first amendment rights—including speech that offends. Any change to these freedoms, even small modifications, is the 'greatest threat to democracy.'