Many UF students, faculty and staff may wonder why the university has not banned the individual wearing the swastika from our campus. The answer is rooted in the First Amendment and the role of state officials. As interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, the First Amendment protects hateful, disturbing and offensive speech from government censorship — at least as long as the speaker is peacefully expressing his views in a public space without threatening anyone’s physical security.
But what about emotional security? Throughout our history, the First Amendment has asked us to put up with speech that evokes strong emotions based on a belief in the protective and healing power of discourse and the ability and willingness of citizens to come together and speak out against hate. In 1977, members of the Nazi Party sought a permit to march in Skokie, Illinois, wearing Nazi uniforms. More than half of Skokie’s residents were Jewish, and many among them were Holocaust survivors or relatives of Holocaust victims. The village of Skokie argued it could ban the march because it promoted hate, inflicted emotional harm and might provoke violence. A trial court and the state Supreme Court agreed and banned the march, but the U.S. Supreme Court ordered it could go forward. Ultimately, the Nazis didn’t march in Skokie but relocated elsewhere. They were nonetheless drowned out by Americans expressing abhorrence for their beliefs. Today, a Holocaust museum stands in Skokie as a testament that offensive beliefs cannot harm us unless we let them go unanswered.
What happened in Skokie, and what’s happening now at UF, are exactly what our First Amendment envisions: engaged citizens with the courage of their convictions drowning out hateful speech with peaceful yet powerful counter speech. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote, the framers of the First Amendment knew “that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies; and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.”
In other words, the remedy for hateful speech is not silence enforced by an edict from on high. Instead, the remedy is our voices united against the speech we hate.
Lyrissa Lidsky is a professor and the associate dean of international programs at the Levin College of Law.