Queer Corner: Like Those Rights to Bear Arms…

Eugene Riordan

Since school is back in session, it’s only fitting that we talk about it. Notre Dame’s student newspaper, The Observer, caused a bit of a kerfuffle last week when they published a student cartoon that was homophobic and bridged on hate speech (you can find the original online, and remember: don’t believe everything you read!). The publishing of the comic both in print and online caused instant backlash from the Notre Dame community, as well as national groups, like Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). The student editor of the paper resigned, using her letter as a space to advocate for a discussion about the treatment of homosexuality on the campus. The newspaper also retracted the comic and issued an apology. That seems to be the end of that problem, then, right?

Well, not really. On comment pages all across the web, along with the usual trolling and spamming, there are many people saying the whole thing was b.s., arguing that it was an infringement of speech, and that if it had been about another group, especially against our new favorite target, the upper-middle class white Christian male, there wouldn’t be any problem. This has led some people to talk about the merits of hate crime and hate speech laws, and whether or not they are unconstitutional.

The First Amendment to our constitution guarantees us the freedoms of speech and press, and these have been upheld throughout history. There are certain exceptions for things that might cause a panic (you couldn’t shout “Fire!” in the Chapel during Dancefest if there was no fire and expect to be protected if a riot ensued) or defamation (either stating or publishing something that was false, but gives a negative image of something). The Supreme Court has used the qualifier “of clear and present danger” to determine if this has occurred, and it has been extended into hate crime and speech laws. These exceptions to the free speech and press laws were issued in 1969. Hate crimes are bias-oriented criminal acts, motivated by hatred toward individuals or groups because of a social classification, like race or religion. There have been many arguments whenever exceptions to the First Amendment were declared by the courts, and they are still argued about today.

In late October, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed into law, which expanded federal hate crimes legislation to include gender, sexual orientation, gender expression and disability, either perceived or actual.

But many groups are against hate crime laws, saying that they exacerbate tensions between groups, and that all crimes are motivated by hate. Punishing certain people for their victims rather than solely their crimes doesn’t make sense, and this takes away from our freedom of speech, which is unconstitutional. Proponents for hate crime legislation deem that they are necessary to protect marginalized individuals, that these crimes are attacks on society and affect many more people than the victims, and that these crimes infringe upon the freedoms of individuals in ways that threaten their “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.”

So which is it? Whose freedoms are being taken away? In the Notre Dame case, is hate speech enough to create this kind of backlash? If it had been a different group, would anyone have cared to the extent that queer groups responded? (I sure ask a lot of questions in these articles, and it is the first week of school. Sheesh…)

In my opinion, the comic was advocating for violence specifically targeting a group of people, and regardless of the subject, it was hateful and shouldn’t be accepted. I’m not advocating, however, for a complete policing of every person’s vocabulary. Say what you want. But when it negatively impacts the lives of other people, that’s when it becomes a problem. That is the moment that you begin to violate the rights of other people, and you give up your absolute freedom of expression. If we need some mechanism to protect hatred and violence, then we have a problem. The solution, then, has become laws on hate speech, and hate crimes. I’m personally thankful that we have hate crime legislation, because it shows that as a nation we’re working towards a goal of acceptance and openness toward all people, regardless of race, sexual orientation, whatever it may be. We still have a long way to go, but hopefully one day we won’t need legislation like this, and we can focus on other important matters. Maybe like UGG boots and leggings: why? Explain please.