Letter to the Editor: free speech vs. hate speech

Alana Dudley, guest writer

To the Editor:

Being able to speak freely without being censored is a core value in our country. The founding fathers made sure to make it the first right in the Bill of Rights because it is essential to our democracy. But there is a line between free speech and hate speech. Although we have laws that protect minorities against discrimination, we do not have any laws against hate speech. International groups have defined hate speech as “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”, but the US has not passed any laws about hate speech because they could infringe on our right to free speech. I recently observed how this conundrum played out at Edina High School.

As at most high schools, students at Edina are required to read classic literature like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. We have to write essays on these books that address important social issues. Because of this, the books often have racial slurs in important parts of the book that students quote in their essays. The first essay I wrote as a high school student was an essay about John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. As most people know, this book has an African American character named Curley who is discriminated against and often called the n-word.

A lot of students in my English class decided to write their essays about the mistreatment that Curley faced throughout the book. Because we had to use at least three quotes in our essays, most of then used at least one quote with the n-word in it. My classmates felt uneasy writing the n-word, so they asked our teacher if they could censor it like so: n****. My teacher told them that censoring racial slurs would be misquoting Steinbeck and was not acceptable. This forced them to either use the n-word in their essay or pick a different topic.

I felt that this problem was far too complicated for my teacher to mandate one solution. It is teachers’ jobs to help students define the line between censorship and hate speech because there is not a clear line.

This problem came up again when I was quoting Tupac Shakur for another English assignment with a new teacher. I asked her whether I could censor the n-word, hoping for a different answer than the one I got from my old teacher. My new teacher told me to do what I felt comfortable with. This showed me that there is not one right answer to this issue, which makes it even more important that teachers do not oversimplify it.

The dilemma of preserving free speech without encouraging hate speech is one that everyone faces, including teenagers. We rely on teachers to guide us to our own conclusions about what is censorship and what is avoidance of hate speech. This is important because we will be facing these issues for the rest of our lives, so we need to learn to think critically and form our own ideas.


Alana Dudley