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The Long History of Hate Speech

Hate speech is making headlines. Again.  The University of Oklahoma expelled two fraternity brothers for leading a racist chant on a chartered bus. A school district in Lancaster, New York, decided to drop its “Redskins” mascot because it was an example of “ethnic stereotyping.” Last May, a student hacked into a computer system at Saint Louis University and displayed “Nazis rule fucking niggers and fags.” Student groups then pressed the university for greater diversity in hiring and in the curriculum. These incidents have generated sharp debates about the value of free speech, particularly in educational settings, with many critics pointing to a totalitarian strain of political correctness today.

History clearly shows, however, that struggles over hate speech are nothing new. Hate speech has been a century-long rift in American politics because it pits two deeply held American values against each other: free speech and equality. 

The University of Oklahoma President David Boren argued that the racist chanters were punished because their speech contributed to a “hostile learning environment for others,” referring to the federal civil rights legislation that bans racial and sexual harassment at colleges and universities. According to the Office of Civil Rights, of the Department of Education, harassment includes “conduct (e.g., physical verbal, graphic or written) that is sufficiently severe, pervasive, or persistent to … limit the ability of an individual’s ability to participate in… the services, activities or privileges provided by the University.” This is only the latest chapter in the American legacy of hate speech regulation.

Americans have regularly supported legislation against hateful speech, although the contexts of the regulation have shifted dramatically over the course of the twentieth century. At the turn of the twentieth century, states and municipalities throughout the country banned “racial ridicule” on stage and screen. Widely deemed to be separate white races in the early twentieth century, Irish and Jewish citizens joined African Americans in their support for the censorship of racist images in advertising, theater and motion pictures.  Jewish and African Americans were alarmed that images of their respective groups as sexually depraved or criminal contributed to vigilante violence against them, although the extent of that threat was much greater for African Americans. All three groups believed that disparaging representations impaired their social standing and political equality. They used direct action, from disruptions of the acts on stage to protests in front of theaters, to attack images of Irish women as clutzy, drunken servants, African American men as razor-wielding rapists, and Jews as scheming fire-bugs.

These groups also moved beyond protests and turned to censorship law to help them create more equitable images in popular culture. Leading Jewish organizations, such as the American Jewish Committee, responded to the discrimination against Jewish vacationers in resorts and hotels by backing bans on the circulation of advertising that defamed any race or religion. By 1926, laws against “discriminating matter against any religious sect, creed, class, denomination or nationality” passed in seven states, including Pennsylvania, New York and Illinois.

Civil rights activists also moved beyond advertising to address racial hatred in entertainment. In 1907 African American activists in Des Moines, Iowa pressured the city council to prohibit any book, performance or play that was “calculated…to create a feeling of hatred or antipathy against any particular race, nationality or class of individuals.” These activists were trying to stop Thomas Dixon’s play, The Clansman, which depicted Reconstruction as a period of mayhem and also valorized Ku Klux Klan violence as a solution to the threat of African Americans. Many believed that the play had provided one spark for the Atlanta race riot of 1906. The Clansman was the basis of D. W. Griffith’s racist blockbuster movie, The Birth of a Nation, which spurred a new wave of laws banning racial ridicule after 1915, the year of its premiere.

A century ago, censorship was justified to preserve morality and public safety. Both of these priorities were infused concerns with racial justice at that time. When Chicago passed its motion picture ordinance in 1907—the first instance of state regulation of motion pictures—the city targeted not just obscenity or depictions of crime (the most prominent targets of censors); it also banned films that “[exposed any race] to contempt, derision or obloquy.” In this case it was not African Americans but Jewish citizens who were at the forefront of banning racial ridicule. Adolf Kraus, a prominent Jewish leader in Chicago, wrote the 1907 law, reflecting his concerns with anti-Semitic incidents, such as the discrimination against Jews in hotels and resorts as well as violence against Jews in Europe. Leading Jewish citizens in Chicago then were active as censors of films with Jewish characters. After consulting a Jewish committee, the head of Chicago censorship banned Rebecca’s Wedding Day, which featured a derogatory image of an overweight Jewish woman, and later recommended cuts to a film version of The Merchant of Venice. Jewish censors only gained power to police images of themselves, and free speech activists criticized their regulation of Jewish themes in film as an example of prejudice in censorship.

The censorship of motion pictures, constitutional until 1952, often included bans on racial ridicule in the early twentieth century. Pennsylvania’s State Board of Censors of Motion Pictures, founded in 1913, banned racial ridicule for several years, as did state censorship boards in Kansas and Maryland. Many cities, including Denver, St. Paul, and Wichita, also passed motion picture censorship ordinances prohibiting films that incited “racial prejudice.”

The Anti-Defamation League, founded in 1913, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), established in 1909, spearheaded the prohibition of racial ridicule in motion pictures. Censorship, however, proved an unreliable weapon. The NAACP used these laws to try to ban The Birth of a Nation, but courts often issued injunctions against cities and states that stopped the film. The bans on racial ridicule rarely protected African Americans against the film and the protests may have increased ticket sales.

Jewish and African American leaders had their doubts about state censorship but felt that motion pictures were a particularly powerful and menacing form of entertainment. Backing the censorship of The Birth of a Nation, NAACP leader W. E.  B. Du Bois explained that African Americans did not have the resources to respond to the film’s vast circulation. He knew it was “dangerous to limit expression, and yet, without some limitations civilizations would not endure.”

Although civil rights organizations turned away from the censorship of racial ridicule by the 1930s, some southern states still used race-based censorship but to suppress images of racial integration and equality. In Memphis, Tennessee, the city censor banned films that showed too much interaction between white and black characters.  Free speech advocates increasingly pushed courts to protect the rights of movie-makers, just as they upheld freedom of the press. A growing coalition of free speech activists finally won in 1952 when the Supreme Court declared the censorship of motion pictures to be a violation of the First Amendment.

Concerns about Nazi racism led some cities states to consider “group libel” laws in the 1940s. Massachusetts passed a group libel law outlawing “any false material…with the intent to maliciously promote hatred of any group of persons…because of race, color or religion.” In 1952 the Supreme Court upheld an Illinois group libel law, which had been on the books since 1917, when citizens pushed for the law with the goal of stopping The Birth of a Nation.

The long history of hate speech legislation shows that popular entertainment has been a rich arena for the regulation of racial ridicule in the early twentieth century. The terms changed, from racial ridicule to group libel and then hate speech, and the venues shifted, from theaters and movie houses to colleges and universities, but the regulation of hate speech stands out as twentieth century tradition, not a new culture war. Lawmakers and activists on the left and the right evaluated the harms of particular speech within varied contexts to craft compromises between racial equality and freedom of expression.