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Hate speech is not a First Amendment right

As the youths passed us, the shirtless leader of the group shouted the “n-word” at my sister and me, while the two behind him laughed and pedaled along.

by Shannen Dee Williams
Special to the Tri-State Defender

On the evening of Wednesday, March 14, my sister and I went for our daily calorie-burning walk in Bartlett. As we made our way up Yale Road toward Alturia, three white male youths on bikes sped off of a side street onto the main road. As the youths passed us, the shirtless leader of the group shouted the “n-word” at my sister and me, while the two behind him laughed and pedaled along. Shocked and disgusted to say the very least, my sister and I quickly turned to watch the gang ride off into the night. Though I shouted back to them that I was going to call the police, I didn’t. Sadly, this was not the first time that something like this had happened to us.

When my sister and I were school-aged children, two white men in a Confederate flag-laced pick-up truck driving on Yale Road pointed a shot gun at us and yelled similar racial epithets as we walked home from school. When my parents called the police back then, we were told that there was nothing that the police could do since we didn’t get the truck’s license plate number. (My sister and I were too busy running away.) In light of that experience, I decided against calling the police on Wednesday night. I was unsure what a police call would do since the cowardly youths did not stick around, and my sister and I did not wait for the boys to return, perhaps with friends and/or arms.

At the urging of my family, friends, and parish members, however, I traveled to the Bartlett Police Department headquarters on the following afternoon to file a formal complaint. But, when I recounted the incident to the assigned officer, an older white policeman, he was shockingly and unashamedly hostile. As I repeated the offending youths’ verbal assault, the officer interrupted me, stating coldly: “That is freedom of speech.” Stunned, I remained silent for a moment, waiting for the officer to continue. When he, too, remained silent, I asked the officer if hate speech was covered under the First Amendment. Only then did he begrudgingly offer me the advice to call the police immediately if it happened again and confess to being unsure as to what I would want the police to do upon arrival. I thought to myself, “Their job.”

By simply walking down the street, my sister and I did not invite this unprovoked verbal and racist assault. According to the officer sworn to protect us, however, these unsupervised, hatred-spewing youths riding their bikes at night had done absolutely nothing wrong. Indeed, I got the strong impression from the officer’s demeanor and unapologetic defense of the youths’ use of the “n-word” that he was inwardly applauding their actions. Perhaps he saw his grandchildren in those youths. Perhaps they were his grandchildren. The officer did not file a report.

If I might, as an undeterred pedestrian and proud Shelby County native, issue a plea: Will all the DECENT people please stand up?

Recent episodes across our nation (most notably in Sanford, Fla., and at the Southern Miss-Kansas State NCAA men’s basketball game) tell us that public and private racism and white supremacist violence are on the rise once again. Hatred is a learned behavior, and children, including those in Shelby County, are being taught to hate people based on race, gender, orientation, religion, etc. everyday.

Discrimination based on race, gender, religion, orientation, age, etc. is immoral and deadly. It is also against the law. Hate speech is not a First Amendment right! Hate speech is offensive and criminal, and under the circumstances that my sister and I experienced, it is prohibited as “violent or threatening behavior” under the laws of our great state.

Despite this hurtful episode, I remain hopeful because I am prayerful. I am also not afraid. I know that most people are decent, God-fearing, and law-abiding. I know many will stand up and say: “Not in my neighborhood! Not in my city! Not in my state! And not in my beloved country!” I am also encouraged by the faith and wisdom of those who told us long ago that when people hate, they destroy themselves.

This episode did not shame me or my sister as it was intended to do. Instead, those young white male youths and the offending white male police officer shamed themselves. In attempting to deny my sister and me our humanity, they denied their own. My hope…my prayer…my faith is that, together, we can redeem it.


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