cover image Hate Speech: The History of an American Controversy

Hate Speech: The History of an American Controversy

Samuel Walker. University of Nebraska Press, $25 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-8032-4763-5

Walker, professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and author of In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the American Civil Liberties Union , offers a readable, insightful chronological history of the United States' unusual policy on hate speech, which in most other countries is prohibited. Though he doesn't ignore legal doctrine, he focuses more on the advocates who shaped the policy. He traces the issue back to the 1920s, when the new ACLU clashed with youthful civil rights groups like the American Jewish Committee and the NAACP over free speech cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, which vindicated the ACLU's position in the 1931 Stromberg v. California case. Three years later with the Nazi threat growing in Europe, the ACLU argued that Nazis in America deserved free speech and that has been the source of ACLU--and American--policy since then. In 1952, the high court upheld a group libel law, which major Jewish groups and others opposed, arguing that only education, not law, could stem prejudice. Walker observes that black civil rights advocates, whom hate speech laws might protect, also opposed such laws because they recognized the importance of what he calls ``content-neutral protection for all ideas and groups.'' The rise of campus speech codes since the 1980s (``the most successful effort in American history to restrict hate speech'') Walker chalks up to an increasing campus polarization on racial matters, the domination of ``left-liberal coalitions'' on campus and the weakness there of the ACLU. The author concludes by defending the ACLU position, noting that minorities are often the first to be prosecuted under hate speech rules. (Apr.)