Three Massachusetts Democrats Running for Congress Endorse Hate Speech Restrictions

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It’s commonplace for Democratic politicians to support gun control, which gun rights advocates see as a restriction on their Second Amendment rights. But what about the First Amendment?

During a Democratic primary Zoom debate among candidates running for a U.S. House seat in Massachusetts’s Fourth Congressional District on Wednesday night, three candidates came out in favor of restricting what courts currently consider free speech in the United States of America.

Nine Democrats are running to replace U.S. Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III (D-Newton) in the Fourth, an odd-shaped district that resembles West Virginia. It includes Brookline in the northeast, Hopkinton in the northwest, and it runs as far south as Somerset. 

The debate Wednesday, July 29, sponsored by Milford TV, was split into two parts, featuring five candidates in the first half and four in the second. During the second half, the moderator asked a user-submitted question asking if the four candidates would support hate speech laws, as exist in Europe, to combat racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia.

One candidate asked — Newton City Councilor Jake Auchincloss — didn’t directly answer the question.

The other three candidates — Jesse Mermell, a Brookline selectman, who previously served as a senior advisor to then-governor Deval Patrick and as vice president for external affairs for Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts; Natalia Linos, a Brookline resident and the executive director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard; and former civil litigator Ben Sigel — said they are in favor of the idea.

Sigel was the first to come out in favor of it.

 “We need to pass tougher hate crime legislation including the anti-lynching legislation, we have to pass the no hate act as well,” he said, “so that we can start collecting hate crimes data…we need to prosecute our hate crimes as well.” 
“I am not just talking about it, I’ve been in the trenches fighting BDS for the last 20 years, it’s something I feel very strongly about.”
On Friday morning, a spokesperson for Sigel’s campaign clarified to New Boston Post in an email that Sigel was referring to hate speech here, writing, “Ben Sigel has absolutely committed to passing legislation that tackles hate speech.”

Then Mermell came out in favor of it. 

“We absolutely need to make sure we’re passing legislation that tackles hate speech,” she said. “As someone who grew up as the product of interfaith marriage, I have a Jewish father and a Catholic immigrant mother in rural Pennsylvania, I am unfortunately no stranger to anti-Semitism. I absolutely oppose BDS and support HR246. It’s a very important stance that we have to take.”

H.Res.246, which all four candidates in the second half of the debate support, is a resolution introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in March 2019 condemning support for BDS — those who advocate for boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning Israel.

Mermell continued:

“I particularly think in these times where we have a president who is fanning the flames of hate — I like to say he has let hate out of the hate closet. He didn’t create it. It existed long before he came down that escalator in Trump Tower years ago, but he has given people to say things and unfortunately in some horrific instances do things that are fueled by hate whether it’s anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, Islamophobia, homophobia, ableism, you name it, and we need to name that and stand up to it in all of its forms. I couldn’t feel more strongly about it and I look forward to working on it in Washington.”

Linos expressed a similar sentiment, in part based on her experience living outside of the United States.

“I agree,” Linos said, referring to what Mermell’s support for restricting hate speech. “I feel tremendously in support of doing more around hate speech. I did mention earlier that I grew up in Greece, and I have been surprised by what is allowed. So I do think there’s a lot to learn from the international environment on what constitutes racist language that is violent, anti-Semitism that can lead to gun violence, and Islamophobia and homophobia and transphobia. 

“I do think we need to start having that conversation of where is free speech and actual violent speech that puts families and communities at risk, both in terms of their mental health and in terms of their physical health,” Linos continued. “As a public health expert, I know that racism kills. It kills explicitly through police violence, but also implicitly through actions and words and biases, so I will not allow for hate speech and systemic racism to continue.”

According to the United Nations, hate speech is “understood as any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factor.”

Restricting so-called hate speech in the United States may require a constitutional amendment, based on court rulings.

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the guarantee of freedom of speech in the federal constitution’s First Amendment prevents government from restricting so-called hate speech. Most recently, in June 2017, the court by an 8-0 vote overturned a decision by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejecting a rock group’s application for a trademark on the grounds that the band’s name is racially disparaging.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, in a concurring opinion in Matal v. Tam, wrote:  “A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all. The First Amendment does not entrust that power to the government’s benevolence. Instead, our reliance must be on the substantial safeguards of free and open discussion in a democratic society.”

In Europe, such restrictions are more common.

In the United Kingdom in 2016, an average of nine people per day were arrested by police for violating hate speech laws, or 3,300 in the year, according to The Times of London.