Monday, July 21, 2008

Hate Speech vs. Free Speech

As I have listened to Zeb at the Ranch, the four-show-a-week radio program coming out of Zeb Bell’s home in Murtaugh, Idaho and broadcasted by KBAR out of Rupert, Idaho, I have struggled with the underlying question of when a person’s First Amendment rights can be impinged by their inappropriate usage of hate speech.

After reviewing the literature on hate speech, including three U.S. Supreme Court cases (R.A.V. v City of St. Paul, Texas v Johnson, Street v New York, Cohen v California, and Chaplinksy v New Hampshire) and the academic publications of Richard Delgado, Samuel Walker, Alexander Tsesis, and Anthony Cortese (Understanding Words That Wound, Hate Speech: The History of an American Controversy, Destructive Messages, and Opposing Hate Speech, respectively), I have come to the ultimate conclusion that hate speech, in this case the racist and bigoted comments aired on Zeb’s program continuously, is in fact protected by the First Amendment because we have allowed it to be unchallenged out of respect for and fear of depleting our other First Amendment rights.

More specifically, I side with the author of Shock Jocks: Hate Speech & Talk Radio, Rory O’Connor, in his assertion that yes, talk radio hosts have the right to speak freely, regardless of whom they berate in the process, but I have a right to oppose them.

Unfortunately, the despicable comments heard daily on Zeb at the Ranch were only addressed publicly, via the Idaho blogosphere and the mainstream media, when he and his guest offered unacceptable, racist opinions regarding the Democratic nominee for the presidency Barack Obama. Prior to this incident, the only public rebuking of Zeb Bell has come by way of letters to the editor of both the Times-News and the South Idaho Press, many written by a former long-standing guest on Zeb’s show. Absent in daily reporting is the fact that statements similar to those made weeks ago are an everyday occurrence on Zeb’s show.

As I have come to realize, hate speech exists on levels. One stage-developmental model, developed by Cortese, applied to hate speech addresses four stages of hate speech. Stage one can be best described as unintentional offense or discrimination—offending minorities without intent to do so. This includes labeling, stereotyping, and discrimination without underlying racism or bigotry existent in the person(s) and/or situations. The second stage, one we are most familiar with, is intentional discrimination. This stage of hate speech is most attributed to those with deeply held beliefs that include racism, bigotry, xenophobia, etc. The third and most devastating stage of hate speech is on a community level—inciting hatred. The third stage is most apparent on conservative radio that allows pundits like Zeb Bell to feed and cultivate feelings of hatred among listeners and the community. The third stage of hate speech is the most public and, in my view, the most damaging. The fourth and most severe level of hate speech is that of inciting violence against groups of people. The fourth level personifies what we have come to know as a hate crime.

On a less sociological level, it could be said that the first level of hate speech is often accidental, the second deliberate and embedded, and the third and forth irreversibly damaging. All levels are unnecessary and the first three are more or less protected by the umbrella that is the First Amendment. Only within the past twenty or so years has the fourth level been addressed legally.

Every airing of Mr. Bell’s show exhibits both levels two and three of hate speech. On this morning’s show, Zeb, infuriated by a recent court ruling once again protecting wolves, discussed the danger of protected wolves and advocated the shooting of these animals despite the newest ruling to protect them. If Mr. Bell ever resorts to this kind of discussion about a group of people, as Bob Grant of ABC once did following a gay pride march when he stated: “ideally, it would have been nice to have a few phalanxes of policemen with machine guns and mow them down,” he will go from being a level three hatemonger to a level four aggressor.

As I mentioned in a previous post, last winter Zeb Bell told the story of a situation at his home where a Hispanic man drove his car into Zeb’s fence. Zeb proudly said that he held the man at gunpoint. The story turned into a discussion of illegal immigration and never once did a caller question Zeb’s action, the police did not investigate the incident, and as far as we know the radio station did not ask Zeb to clarify his statements. This incident has remained forefront in my mind throughout this discussion of levels of hate speech and I would contend that at least while telling this story, Zeb was guilty of inciting violence against a minority group. Whether any of Zeb’s listeners acted similarly following his story will remain unknown. Do we absolutely need proof of his actions or the subsequent actions of his listeners to force this man off the air?

Without question, Zeb at the Ranch has been bordering on FCC trouble for some time now, perhaps for the past eight years he has been on the air. However, not enough people are in up in arms over the issue to force a change. It appears the only recourse we have as concerned members of the community is to boycott Mr. Bell’s sponsors and make is clear that hate speech will not be tolerated.

As I’ve struggled with the battle between free speech and hate speech, as I have said, I’ve come to the ultimate conclusion that Zeb Bell has every right to spew hatred from his pulpit as he wishes, but I have every right to challenge and oppose him. And I will until he is taken off the air for making the lives of minorities in the Magic Valley and Mini-Cassia area absolutely horrific.

To quote Sartre: “Hell is other people.”

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