Two Former ACLU Executives Gather for a Discussion—Not Debate—on Hate Speech

Two Former ACLU Executives Gather for a Discussion—Not Debate—on Hate Speech

Debates are actually like sporting events… and so you walk away someone having won and someone having lost, but oftentimes, as they say, not much light really being shed on things. And so, we felt like—on many important issues, it may not be as fun to have a serious inquiry, but oftentimes it’s much better. This is especially true, I think, in these times in our country, where the country is so deeply divided.

– UC Berkeley Law Professor, john a. powell

When NYU Law Professor Nadine Strossen and UC Berkeley Law Professor john a. powell (who spells his name in lowercase) came together at the University of Delaware last March, it wasn’t to debate.

UC Berkeley Law Professor, john a. powell

“john and I decided this should be a discussion rather than a debate,” Strossen told students who had assembled for the scheduled debate on hate speech.

powell explained, “Debates are actually like sporting events… and so you walk away someone having won and someone having lost, but oftentimes, as they say, not much light really being shed on things. And so, we felt like—on many important issues, it may not be as fun to have a serious inquiry, but oftentimes it’s much better. This is especially true, I think, in these times in our country, where the country is so deeply divided.”

Both professors previously worked at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): Strossen served as president from 1991 to 2008 and powell worked as national legal director from 1987 to 1993. Yet the two have diverging perspectives on free speech, in particular when it comes to hate speech.

powell suggested that the old adage “My freedom stops at the tip of your nose” doesn’t take into account scientific evidence about the seriousness of psychological injuries. “I’m suggesting that the science, in terms of the mind and body, requires us to sort of re-examine in a deeper way what kind of injuries we want to allow and what kind of injuries we don’t want to allow.”

as a civil libertarian I should say I’m always very nervous about empowering government. There’s inherent distrust there. There is a pattern over time where government has used seemingly benevolent power, including power to protect people from harmful or injurious speech, as a pretext for suppressing ideas that are critical of the government.

– NYU Law Professor, Nadine Strossen

But Strossen drew a clear distinction between the harm caused by expression and the harm caused by proverbial sticks and stones, which “will immediately, simply by force of being thrown, the sticks and stones will directly harm you, whereas speech harm does involve some intermediating thought processes.”

powell spoke eloquently about the studies of David Williams at Harvard, which show that black Americans, and black women in particular, are showing neurological effects “because of the constant tension, the stress of racism in the United States. This is physical, and what he said that means is a shortened life expectancy.”

Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) faculty partner Nadine Strossen
NYU Law Professor, Nadine Strossen

Strossen acknowledged the neurological research is still ongoing about the physical effects of psychological harm. However, she said, “as a civil libertarian I should say I’m always very nervous about empowering government. There’s inherent distrust there. There is a pattern over time where government has used seemingly benevolent power, including power to protect people from harmful or injurious speech, as a pretext for suppressing ideas that are critical of the government. “

Watch the full discussion below.

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