When reading the phrase “homosexuality is shameful,” would you consider it an opinion or hate speech? For most people, it would read as an attack on a large and marginalized group of people. But for some, they’d simply see it as an opinion.
That’s how it was for Tyler Harper, a high school student who didn’t agree with his school’s celebration of the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s Day of Silence, the annual day of action to spread awareness about the effects of bullying and harassing LGBTQ students. Harper believed his school was celebrating what “God had condemned,” and thought the school should be ashamed.
When the school disagreed with Harper, he took matters into his own hands. He wore a shirt taped with the phrase, “homosexuality is shameful,” along with a piece of scripture. The school punished Harper for his shirt, and Harper filed a federal lawsuit — Harper vs. Poway Unified School District — claiming his First Amendment rights had been violated.
Long story short, the court ruled in favor of the school district. The reasoning was that students are a captive audience, and need protection from psychological attacks that cause them to question their self worth. Basically, when on school grounds, students cannot hide behind the First Amendment to protect their “right” to abuse and intimidate other students at school.
Harper still stands by his actions, believing he has the right to express his opinion. The question is, when is something an opinion, and when is it considered hate speech?
An opinion is a view or judgment about something, not necessarily based on fact, whereas hate speech is communication that carries no meaning other than to express hatred for a specific group, especially to provoke violence.
The problem is, hate speech is protected under the First Amendment. There are some forms of speech that aren’t protected under the first amendment, like “fighting words” which are face-to-face personal insults addressed to a specific person that are likely to start an immediate fight. Hate speech, like religious, racial and other specified rude content are completely protected under the First Amendment.
Though legally there isn’t anything the law can do about hate speech, — unless it turns into a hate crime, a punishable offence — there is a distinction between morality of hate speech as opposed to opinion. That distinction simply boils down to having basic human decency.
In Harper vs. Poway Unified School District, Harper’s believes homosexuality isn’t okay, but his opinion turned into hate speech when he deliberately attacked his school’s LGBTQ group and day of appreciation. School is supposed to be a safe place for all students of every race, religion and sexuality to learn, and it’s the job of each teacher and administrator to ensure that safety.
When it comes to hate speech and hateful opinions, it’s better to keep quiet. Hate speech, though protected, will only cause problems and build barriers that marginalized groups work to bring down every day.
Unless hate speech turns into a hate crime, however, it's just that: speech. Although the saying “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” is a generalization, it’s possible to combat hate speech. It’s good to have opinions about things, but when opinions turn to hate speech, it can divide groups of people to the point of complete separation and can lead to violence.
It’s important to think about what to say before saying it, and also just to remember that everyone has different opinions. But lifestyle choices, like what sexuality and what religion anyone chooses to practice, are deserving of respect, or at least to be left alone. Hate speech doesn’t solve anything; it merely creates a lot of problems.
Riley Runnells is a sophomore studying journalism at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Do you agree? Let Riley know by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.