Evangelicals spent a day on campus. They held large black and white signs and yelled what you might expect. “You’re going to hell” and “Accept Jesus into your heart” were some of the least offensive things said. Out in the world, events like the one on our own campus are unfortunately commonplace. Every time we see people spouting what I would call hate, an inevitable conversation begins about how exactly we should deal with bigots on the street and freedom of speech.
The United States, unlike almost every other democratic power, has no regulations regarding hate speech. In the UK, you can be fined and or imprisoned for expressing hatred towards individuals based on race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender expression, etc. Not so in the U.S., where the Supreme court ruled as recently as 2017 to reaffirm protections for hate speech under the first amendment. This is because the first amendment is written in such a way that leaves no space to create any legislation against speech of any kind. And it’s for this reason that United States is unlikely to change any legal positions regarding hate speech. So, we’re stuck with hate speech.
If we can’t ban hate speech, then what can we do stop bigots from spreading it? Well, we can take into consideration the other aspect of speech: the platform. While the U.S. government is legally prevented from censoring you, private platforms like social media are not. It’s for this reason that we’ve recently seen several far-right conspiracy theorists banned from platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. You’ll also find that these conspiracy theorists tend to put out the same statement upon being banned, that this censorship is attacking their first amendment rights. However, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a lawsuit in which an account was reinstated for this reason. You have the right to speech but not to a platform.
So how can you use this when dealing with people like the evangelicals that came to our campus? Consider their platform: it is entirely up to the student body how powerful it is. If you’re walking down the street and you see a person wearing a tin foil hat claiming the “big foot faked the moon landing,” you’re going to continue walking until you’re out of earshot. By doing so you’re discrediting the speaker, they’re not even worth the time to listen. By crowding around or arguing with the evangelists, you are the one giving them a platform. More people watching the argument is ultimately more people listening to the hateful message they’re preaching. So, treat them accordingly, instead of standing nearby and gawking, simply keep walking and paying them little mind. I do understand the strong desire to intervene, so if you feel you must, I suggest using strategies that direct attention away from the evangelists. A common tool people use is music, lots of people carry powerful speakers with them and drown them out. Ultimately, it’s important to remember that these people came to upset you, to get a response. The best response is to try to be above it. It’s hard, but it works.