Saturday, March 5, 2011

The right to remain hateful

Not long ago, I thought it might be fun to write about spending some time moderating comments and complaints on our web site,

A few hours, maybe, or even a day – enough to offer a glimpse at how technology has made ugliness so very easy and accessible.

Then I decided I might also spend a day at Starbucks to reveal that some of us have caffeine issues. In other words: Duh. We know we’re ugly, and we know, too, that the problem is larger than technology. Keyboards and without keyboards, more of us seem emboldened to say out loud whatever noxious or hurtful notion crosses our minds.

This past week, the U.S. Supreme Court reminded us how frustrating, challenging and, ultimately, valuable that can be.

The Court ruled that Kansas preacher Fred Phelps and his hateful Westboro Baptist Church followers were constitutionally protected from punishment when they picketed outside the 2006 funeral of Matthew Snyder, a 20-year-old Marine killed in Iraq.

The protected speech that day included a sign that read “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” Another said: “God Hates Fags,” although Snyder wasn’t gay.

It is vile speech. Cruel speech. You can choose your own damning adjective. And what makes the ruling more difficult is that the Court is demanding that we take this speech seriously. Why?

Because it’s a part, however crude, of “matters of public import,” as Chief Justice John Roberts wrote.

(It might make you smile, however, that Westboro owes some thanks to none other than Hustler Magazine, whose cases the Ccourt cited as precedent in the protections offered to outrageous speech. Strange bedfellows, indeed.)

It’s elementary, really, when you step back and strip away emotion. But that’s a difficult thing to do with hate speech, because words that intend to hurt usually do.

Even the court, with its 8-1 verdict, had some struggles with this. In a passionate dissent, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the Westboro picketers inflicted severe pain, intentionally. At what point, Alito asks, does public debate become a form of assault?

It is a struggle we face with our own public debates, from anonymous commenters to one very public elected official.

Back in January, county commissioner Bill James called homosexuals “sexual predators” in an e-mail to his colleagues and in subsequent communications on his web site. His fellow commissioners responded with a resolution pledging support for tolerance – a weak gesture, I wrote then, when they could have confronted James about the dangers that come with wrongly demonizing a whole population.

Now James is predictably back at it – again calling homosexuals “sexual predators” in recent e-mails dealing with men having sex in areas of a Mecklenburg park. While it’s a given that public sex should be prosecuted, James had no evidence that anyone in the park was preying on children. Their behavior was enough, he said.

Just to be clear, he said: “Homosexuals are sexual predators at their core.”

There’s no need, again, to cite all the research that overwhelmingly debunks that premise. And we can take solace that time is pushing James further to the fringe of the conversation on gays and lesbians. Yes, many among us continue to struggle with homosexuality, its morality, its place among the institutions we grew up honoring – but fewer believe that gays are evil at their core.

That’s what the Supreme Court reminded us this past week – that speech evolves, that debate evolves, and that evolution comes not from eliminating the most offensive parts of the conversation, but by confronting them and using them to help frame what we think.

It’s not easy to do. Not when the words are painful, or ugly, and not when they can bring harm – or invite it. And so we struggle each day with what gets condemned and what gets allowed. And we know, deep down, that while it might be more satisfying to reach for our “delete” buttons, it’s more valuable to at least consider “reply.”


Anonymous said...

Nice column, although I am sure it is tongue-in-check....especially since the liberal hacks at the CO seemingly enjoy censorship as it pertains to posted comments on their website. Although free speech is protected by a Supreme Court dominated by conservatives, the CO staff would beg to differ.

Wiley Coyote said...


All you had to do was read the online Observer today to see that at least three stories had comments disabled due to "TOS violations".

The Observer seems to yank comments very quickly these days.

We all know there are people out there on any side of an issue who can get very ugly with their comments but those are usually in the minority and should be easily removed. It's as if the Observer doesn't want to even deal with it.

Perhaps the Observer blog police should read the First Amendment or even the latest SCOTUS ruling in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

pstonge said...


Just to clarify: The First Amendment doesn't protect comments on web sites. The Observer, like any private entity, can determine what language is too abusive or inappropriate for its products, print or online.

That said, it's a difficult juggle for newspapers and individuals. On this blog, I encourage conversation and debate, yet there are boundaries here with regards to nastiness. What I'm saying in this column is that the Court is reminding us with the ruling this week that we have to be careful with those boundaries, because even hateful language has value - hard as that might be to see sometimes.


Gary from Gastonia said...

You might want to talk to your fellow blogger, Jack Betts. As a moderator, he's either having trouble with the technology, or has decided to say to heck with allowing comments on his columns.

Wiley Coyote said...

...because even hateful language has value - hard as that might be to see sometimes.

I believe that's what I alluded to..

[I can't define what is pornography.] "But I know it when I see it."
popular paraphrase of Potter Stewart, opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964)

It's comforting to know the Observer knows the difference between free speech, nastiness, hate speech, etc. when they see it...

Anonymous said...


First, a sexual predator doesn't have to prey just on children--I never understood James's comment to mean that all gays prey on children. As an older teen and later an adult I was three times more often assertively hit on by gays verses women. And I'm not gay. And I'd have to agree to some degree with James--by allowing that some gays are aggressively sexual predators, even to teens as well as adults--but certainly not all are, I don't believe.

If you have evidence that no gay has ever been a predator toward other adults or teens, I'd like to see those links.....

Anonymous said...

Speaking of hate speech...I think those folks from Westboro are a bunch of idiots. They are misguided in their interpretation of the Bible. Free speech is a great thing - too bad some people are too stupid to use it responsibly.

pstonge said...

Anon, 11:16:

Of course there are homosexuals who prey on teens. There are heterosexuals who do the same, but we shouldn't indict either group as a whole, and that's what James does when he says homosexuals are predators at their core.


Ed said...

I'm always amused when people say that removing comments from a website is censorship. It's a private website, they can do with it as they please. Nowhere does it say you have a right to comment on a website. If you want to post your opinions without moderation you can create your own website.

Bob said...

Anonymous said: If you have evidence that no gay has ever been a predator toward other adults or teens, I'd like to see those links.....

So, if any heterosexual man has ever been predatory toward a female, woman or teen, then all heterosexual men, no matter who they are, should be considered predatory to the core? Then who can you trust?

Anonymous said...

Hate speech, as we see on some of these boards is caused a lot of the time, by a lack of civility and common decency by some who write here. Much of this behavior stems from the lack of education and the ability to conduct a conversation or debate without name calling for those who have differing opinions.

Anonymous said...

If you ponder on it a bit, it could be argued we are all sexual predators at the core...we simply have acceptable and not acceptable limits. I'm reminded of the seduction of a mid-teen girl by an older woman in the Vagina Monologs, which is presented as a loving and wonderful event by the author, clearly a homosexual, and the segment is almost always received by the audience positively. Yet how many of us fathers would want our teen daughters seduced by a lesbian?

James may err in the words he uses or in applying them to a whole group, but I don't think you can dismiss his position entirely, as some would want to do for PC purposes. As often occurs, the truth is in the middle somewhere.....

Anonymous said...

There's nothing wrong with "hate speech." In fact, there's no such thing as hate speech. I would filter out the cursing and personal insults but that's as far as I'd go.

As penance for my sins I listen to National Public Radio. On Thursday they ran a great profile on Mr. Phelps and his family who make up Westboro Baptist Church.

These are amazingly successful people. Many of Phelps 13 children are attorneys. His daughter argued their case all the way to the Supreme Court. In Topeka it's universally agreed that if you want the best legal representation possible you go to the Phelps Law Firm.

Further, the reporter who sat down and did the interview with them said they were extremely polite, engaging and non-confrontational.... nothing like you would expect.

Anonymous said...

Hate speech? Have you checked out what the union ares sayin in Wisconsin? Bravo the lone conservative judge, Alito.

Anonymous said...

Peter: Very well-written piece on several fronts. And, I appreciate you responding to those that apparently would rather have the Observer forums/responses turned inot a free-for-all of hate. If people were willing to use their real names/addresses (and have this verified) THEN they would be posting very different things in most situations. But, the Observer can be a great equalizer: it allows whomever to post. It is only responsible that the Observer controls its content. There are other forums that people can spread whatever they wish. Observer doesn't have to cheapen itself in that way. THANK YOU!

Anonymous said...

On the westboro cult: If you ignore them they will go away.

On free speech, obama hates his fox news, the liberals hate their Rush, and everyone hates olberman, and schultz but when the government, our government tells folks what they can or cannot say without evoking some form of punishment we are all already doomed. We have become as tolerant as the "tallyban" at that point.

There is no simple observation, or answer.

Anonymous said...

The observer is just NOT going to leave James alone. They have James set-in-their-site that he is gone and will do anything to get hime gone as James is the ONLY voice of reason on the board. If I were James, I would have probably thrown-in-the-towel a long time ago as working with CLT Gum-mint is like swimming upstream.
There is NO freedom of speech on the CO as they have one agenda and one agenda alone: Liberalism. The more liberal-the-better for them. Anyone or anything getting in the way of THAT is gone.
Anything that does not promote this agenda they delete. Free speech? non-existent at the CO.
My suggestion: subscribe to the Wall Street Journal and check the CO for weather. Thats about all the Charlotte Observer is good for.
and we wonder whats wrong with this country? whats wrong begins with the media, right here in good-ole home-grown charlotte.

Samuel said...

Pete -

How about the hate being spouted by the Wisconsin unions, who have characterized Scott Walker as "Hitler", a "bit$#" and other wonderful things. How about the Wisconsin union members who have arguably assaulted law abiding citizens and lawmakers, threatening them, harassing them in restaurants, etc.?

Don't just center the hate comments on guys like Bill James or the Westboro church - there are plenty of liberals who are just as hateful.

Anonymous said...

pstonge said..."Folks,Just to clarify: The First Amendment doesn't protect comments on web sites."
Peter beat me to it. Many people seem to think they have the right to say whatever they want in all forums. They are free to start their own website and go at it. But the CO can do what they want with theirs.

That being said, the CO has disabled comments on several stories lately...I believe they have done so immediately on a couple of stories, perhaps "knowing" that the topic was so charged that it would invite comments that would eventually require the shutdown.

The anonymity of comments on websites does allow for very hateful things to be said, but it is giving us more insight into what some of the people walking around us are really and always have been thinking.

Reader28205 said...

Your column in well-considered, well-written. Unfortunately, we seem to have lost discretion in this country lately. Just because something is legally protected -- in this case the right of hateful people to say hurtful things -- doesn't make it right to do. Justice Samuel Alito made a good point in his dissent.

Fortunately, those of us who disagree with the behavior of hatemongers also have the right to speak out against them, to avoid them, and to let them know by our actions that what they are doing is wrong.

pstonge said...


You're right - hate speech isn't owned by conservatives alone. I mentioned Westboro because that's the case the Court ruled on, and I bring up Bill James because he's an example close to home.



Anonymous said...

At anon 11:06 (pm)

May I suggest you ask any teenage girl or young women how many times they were hit upon by older men?

I'm willing to bet it was a whole lot more than three times. And I am also willing to bet that it was more than being "approached" in more than a few cases.

If you want to use anecdotal evidence as proof of sexual predators - I can assure you that heterosexual men come out looking pretty bad indeed.

Anonymous said...

You're right - hate speech isn't owned by conservatives alone.

You're correct - look at any political topic within this forum and you will clearly see that hate speech is not owned by the conservatives. Almost all of the name calling on this board comes from the left.

todd said...

Pete, I dislike homosexuality and child molestation but the only people who have sent death threats and hate mail anonymously to my home when I publicly oppose it in the letters to the editor were the homosexual contingent.The ones asking and preaching for tolerance ..aren't very.

Whats up with that?

Dr. Horrible said...

Strange bedfellows, indeed.

Not really, Pete. They're both noxious and disgusting Democrats. They have a great deal in common.

Anonymous said...

You are the perfect employee for the CO.
Are you going to ride it to the bottom to bankruptcy court with the other perfect employees?

Jay Hanig said...

For all this brave talk about freedom of speech, I appear to be the only one willing to put his name on my comment. That being said:

To the person named Anonymous who claimed that Bill James was the only voice of reason on the board, you ought to understand that Bill James has issues.

For most of us, homosexuality is a peripheral topic, something that we may talk about on occasion but it has little to do with our day to day lives. Not so for Bill James: it's one of his most recurring themes.

At the risk of offering a little folk psychology, I have little doubt in my mind that it's a defense mechanism called "projection". Generally speaking, those who rail the longest and loudest are the most concerned about their own conflicted sexuality.

One of these days, James may be exposed (so to speak) as to his real proclivities. That's just my view but I'm pretty sure I'm right.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of hate speech. I've never understood why the CO allows commenting on sensitive issues. There are certain stories that people who hate these group thrive on. The CO gives them a forum to spread their hate speech. I've noticed that other papers such as the AJC that have shut down comments on most stories but allowed it on ones where the comments will be civil. I do not think the readers of the CO are "mature" enough to keep it civil at this time and the CO should reevaluate whether it should be a platform for hate speech.

Larry said...

I wish I too had an Observer column.

I would not even ask a penny in pay.

First I would write about the fact that the comments were stopped on the Race Stories Yesterday, yet the comments which were just as gruff were allowed to stay on the visit by a Republican coming to visit and sign books.

Also I would write about how the Observer protected the CIAA visitors from any bad comments while they were here.

Yes this column would have had some very.... non Observer comments but such is the nature of the animal

Oh the Animal was created from frustration Observer as you have not one Conservative Writer or Editorial Board Member to represent we majority of subscribers who want our opinion in the paper.

Have you not noticed that in the fact we have been dropping the paper like it was filled with liberal news?

I know the only reason we still get it is because my wife wants the ads and you guys begged me to keep it at 105 dollar a year.

So using Bill James again is just your usual lets get the comments going, but what about the other comments you let go unchallenged?

I would make sure my column would have a story about the two hour sales job Jennifer Roberts is using as a get involved in the budget meetings, all the while trying to sell a tax increase along with plants in the audience.

These meetings are also filled with people from the Govs office and Mel Watts office all they do is tell you how high taxes are everywhere else is but here, if nothing it is worth it to go and see how desperate they all are.

But the best part is where George Dunlap, upon telling everyone that the County has over 900 million in unspent bonds mainly for our schools, said he hopes the school does not come asking for these for new schools as they are closing schools.

Wait George. You and your group built schools in areas they were not needed and not in the areas they were needed, so people were bussed. Now you do not want these areas to get the schools needed in the areas the people had voted to get these schools?

Why did April Betha not make sure this comment got into the Observer since she did a puff piece. But such is the way of the Observer and I guess as we have learned today that would be mean. We need to stop the meanness and go with what the Observer wants.

Ghoul said...

Anon @ 7:41,

Of course the Observer is within its rights to delete comments, and I should know. The problem is their unrepentant bias as to which subjects they close comments on. I have seen several hateful articles lately on George W Bush, with dozens of spiteful attacks, yet these are never deleted. If fact, lately, I cannot even flag a post, Yes button doesn't work, only No.

And what about some topics that have comments blocked when posted? Some of them are quite ridiculous. Anything Butler HS related, comments are never allowed. Even Wertz's HS sports blog had comments disabled on Butler topics, what's up with that? Is it even a blog if their is no dialog allowed?

Anything conservative, or Christian, or Bill James related, anything goes. But, dear God, don't allow facts posted on anything black or Hispanic related, facts are offensive to the Observer, right Pete?

Anonymous said...

As usual, 'conservatives' don't even remotely understand the beloved Constitution that they simply adore quoting.

Let's try to break it down for you folks just a little bit.
I can say/type here that you are an absolute ignorant fool for quoting a portion of the Constitution without comprehending what it means, and I would obviously be free to do so, and I'd also be absolutely accurate.

However, the Constitution that you love to quote in no way keeps the Observer's staff from editing my correct comment. The Observer is a private, non-government run entity... you know that other term that y'all love to throw around without understanding it- 'Liberty?'

The Constitution would prohibit any Government entity from restricting my right to call you ignorant.

It's really not that hard, but not to fear- Sarah Palin doesn't get it either.

Anonymous said...

It's not the hate speech itself that is the problem so much as what we do with it.

Do we ignore or combat it?

If we choose to combat it, do we do so with anger?

People who hate do so from their own fears of self. When they speak from such a vitriolic manner they are exhibiting doubt of self and lack of certainty of their own being.

Peter is right in that we have to remove the emotion from the speech which is hard to do with something called "hate" speech.

Perhaps we should instead label it ignorant speech?

Lynne Stevenson said...

The military families who have buried their dead and have been subjected to these shows of idiocy all need to form protests of their own and boycott that church.
Freedom of speech runs two ways and the other side deserves to be heard from also. Clearly couth, tact, common sense, and any sense of moral decency have gone the way of The Model T Ford...

Anonymous said...

Comments that ALL of ANY group are ANYTHING are patently ridiculous.

But there are groups of people who seem to tolerate certain kinds of behavior more than others, that's for sure.

Just learn to recognize hyperbole when you see it and ignore it (or just correctly label it as such and move on to the actual facts).

Anonymous said...

Therefore, the column is tongue-in-cheek. Basically Peter what I infer from your column and subsequent posts is that the freedom of speech should be vigorously defended, especially as it pertains to the press, but the CO doesn't need to participate in recognizing others same right because it is not a government entity.....sure sounds like a double standard to me.

Therein lies some of the problems with this country, Peter…different rules for different people, cultures, groups, and entities.

Anonymous said...

One step in the right direction would be to allow only Observer subscribers to post on your website. I question whether many of the racist idiots who post on the Observer website have ever paid a dime for your newspaper. The ability to post on your site should at minimum be tied to a financial commitment to your product.

pstonge said...

Anon, 10:51:

I'm sorry that's your takeaway from my column. As I wrote, we all struggle with what speech we allow and what we condemn. That's true, too, for newspapers and other businesses, which must balance what's appropriate for their audiences.

My point in my earlier comment is that although the First Amendment protects most speech from government regulation, that doesn't mean that a private entity must allow all speech. It's up to us, as businesses and individuals, to make our own choices. For me, the threshold is nastiness - not disagreement with what I'm saying.



Anonymous said...

Nevertheless, Peter, that constitutes censorship. I agree that we could all do without the nasty, racial, and insulting comments, but who is really qualified to draw such a subjective line especially when we all have our own individual biases and belief systems. What is offensive to a Jew may be completely legitimate to a Christian and vice a versa. Alternatively, should we just leave such subjective standards up to the sensibilities of the majority, which I believe, but correct if I am wrong, was something the framers of the US Constitution were trying to discourage?

I believe in the court’s doctrine pertaining to the prohibitive use of “fighting words” as well as the prohibition of “yelling ‘FIRE’ in a crowded movie-house,” but if someone wants to make a statement which violates my own bias or belief system, I must remind myself that that is the price one has to pay in order to communicate their own thoughts and beliefs freely.

Anonymous said...

Nastiness? Would be far more credible if the comments on just one Palin story had ever been disabled.

Anonymous said...

I think the ability to comment anonymously is very valuable.

Not only are people freer to say what they really think but they are protected from retaliation.

When people say you should put your name on something, I am always curious why they want to know who you are.

I received death threats years ago for criticizing Pat Robertson while he was running for president.

My letter to the editor was printed in the Houston Chronicle and I immediately got death threats on my phone (back before the days of caller id everywhere).

They certainly enjoyed using their anonymity.

As long as there are people like that in the world I will choose to voice my opinions anonymously if I think they are the least bit controversial.

As for Freedom of the Press, first, you have to own the press.

If not, then you will be edited.

pstonge said...

Anon, 11:23:

You're absolutely right. Ultimately, we are censors - here and elsewhere. When I decide that a comment has gone beyond the boundaries of taste, they are boundaries that I'm setting. Same as others who moderate comments on their blogs or for their online publications. It's the same, too, for the folks who decide which Letters to the Editor they print.

Although the Court is reminding us that even the most distateful comments have a place in public debate and should be protected from punishment, that doesn't make the struggle to set private boundaries any less real.


Anonymous said...

Peter, At least we agree that there exists censorship as defined by the biases, belief systems and sensibilities of the author of particular CO Blogs, articles, and columns.
However, I find it horribly ironic that a constitutional right, which was afforded primarily to the benefit of the press at the time of its passage, is negligible as it pertains to a journalist’s readership based upon the assumption that what applies the Court’s rulings on “public boundaries” is somehow not applicable to “private boundaries.”
As I stated earlier, a double standard exists as a result which, based upon your explanation, dictates that those with the means to control the media, have the power to control what the masses may or may read and discuss publicly.

In closing Peter, I have enjoyed our discussion. I will now recognize my place and just shut up.

pstonge said...

Thanks, Anon. The alternative to that "double standard" is to let every comment in, regardless of whether it contains obscenity or extreme vulgarity. I don't think that's what we want, either. So we try to find a balance. Do we get it right every time? Surely not.

Thanks to you, too, for the good discussion.


tarhoosier said...

It is not the least bit surprising to me that many of the posters here, as with many stories at the CO, are most unaware of irony. The title of the piece is "The right to remain hateful". A few minutes of reflection should be enough to give pause before committing angry words to the internet, but no.
Until fifteen years ago those who wished to take issue publicly with the stand of a business or institution had to shout on a street corner, or equivalent. Just because the Observer provides a soapbox one need not bring his own rope.
John Cochrane

Anonymous said...

Homosexual means being attracted to a (post-puberty) adult of the same gender body as you are. Not a child.

I am a heterosexual female and can assure you, since age 10 I have been a victim of unwanted sexual and physical predatory behavior by heterosexual males more than once. Way more. Seems to me we might be better served to paint all HETERO males with the same brush.

Anonymous said...

Well, I don't hate people, but I think it's unfair that African Americans are honored for a month and we Irish Americans get one day! What's up with that?

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
SeaShark said...

The U.S. Supreme Court's WESTBORO decision affirms and honors the First Amendment. I don't have any sympathy or respect for the Westboro Baptist Church parishoners or people who torch the American flag, but these obnoxious actions are protected speech according to the Constitution and judicial precedent. The First Amendment is intended to encourage lively discussion and debate. Liberty can be annoying and offensive, but the democratic response to someone's hateful, abusive, derogatory, disgusting speech is for someone else to respond with an assertive and intelligent reply. Chief Justice John Roberts' authoritative majority opinion is a concisely reasoned and meticulously defined declaration that the First Amendment is---and must always remain--- the bedrock of public discourse in the USA.

Anonymous said...

Anon 5:46.

Maybe it's just males in general who are more likely to be sexual predators.

Among the homosexual community, the women seem to be much lower profile than the men, so popular images of homosexuals (particularly in the media) are primarily male, although that is changing.

This could explain the perception that "homosexuals" in general are predators.

Anonymous said...

Justice Roberts was clearly referring to public speech...this does not include for-profit corporations. This is a long settled issue. We shall hold those accountable for abusing speech and harrassing citizens based upon the color of their skin, gender, or sexual preference, particularly in a corporate setting.

Anonymous said...

Hey Peter,

I know it's three weeks later, but I wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed this article. Your analysis is nice and addresses one of the fundamental issues of free speech and extremisim--whether such speech should be protected and publicized, or pushed into the shadows. I think Louis Brandeis was right when wrote that "sunlight is the best disinfectant."

What folks like James and Phelps ignore is that their incivility taints their messages; people remember their distasteful methods and then associate their incivility with their platorm. Ironically, James and Phelps have probably done as much to advance the idea of marriage equality than other event in the last 15 years. It becomes one of those situations where a reasonable person thinks, if the Phelps are for it, I should be against it.

Thanks again.