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Hate speech and the First Amendment

September 14, 2017
P. Roscelli
Redwood City

During the aftermath of the Virginia tragedy my Catholic Church was quick to flood the airwaves with unequivocal condemnations of haters and hateful rhetoric. However, just as worrisome to me is my church’s failure to note the unintended consequences that can occur as a result of quickly rushing to condemn someone as a hater.

Has my church already forgotten being called a hater by members of the gay community, the media and the pro-choice crowd for its stances on various social issues? Did that labeling make it so? And even if haters and their speech can be identified, a bigger question still remains: What is the appropriate Catholic response after identifying hate? By failing to defend freedom of speech and assembly in the same terms it condemned hateful rhetoric, is my church implicitly endorsing the right of hecklers to shout down and prevent any speech from occurring – so long as someone (anyone?) feels offended?

Here’s a thought: Cannot the church (my church) stand against hateful rhetoric while also standing for the rights of the hater to spew hateful rhetoric? Are we really saying that the church that gave us Aquinas, More and Augustine and survived 300 years of Roman persecution cannot clearly explain to its flock that simple point? Is it really so difficult to explain to the public that while we condemn hate in all its forms we also just as strongly defend the First Amendment rights of everyone (haters, too) to speak freely?

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