In the essay; On Racist Speech

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In the essay; On Racist Speech, by Charles R. Lawrence III, Lawrence sheds light upon the very turbulent issue of the First Amendment right to the Freedom of speech in contrast to the inequality caused by it’s “abuse” through racially prejudice speech. He calls upon University officials to enact some sort policy that will protect both the rights of those who are victimized by this “racial harassment,” while at the same time not censoring our constitutional right of free speech. Continually, Lawrence defines the set of ideals that the First Amendment was based on, particularly; equality. He goes on to show the audience that this very balance is in danger if the speech in question is stated in a deliberately hurtful manner. “Hurt” is far too broad a term to take away any civic freedom.

Lawrence sites the monumental case of Brown v. Board of Education, for the very same reason that the case itself was needed. Although in very different premises, Lawrence argues just as Brown did, that segregation in schools causes inequality and unfair conditions to the victims of “racist speech.” Brown deemed the idea of segregation as a symbolic message that affected the “hearts and minds” of young black students. Lawrence correspondingly deems free speech that allows “Hate Mongering Speech” as unfair and segregating. Lawrence proposes that the racist speech can hurt so much so that it can create an unfair educational environment for those who are victimized by it.

The First Amendment right of freedom of speech has always been a controversial one, such things as Flag Burning, and Hate rallies use this clause from the constitution to rectify their actions. The original purpose of the First amendment was so that all could be heard no matter how small their voice. Yet, more and more the first amendment serves only to further mute those “small voices.” Lawrence presents that idea that in allowing the first amendment right to all speech including the most injurious will not lead to the freedom of those he seeks to defend. In spite of the widespread idea that in allowing all forms of speech, we would create an arena where only those regarded as “good speech” would excel and those regarded as “bad speech” would simply fall through the cracks. Lawrence does not hold this idea to be true; he argues, “Our experience tells us quite opposite. We have seen too many good liberal politicians shy away from the issues that might brand them as being to closely allied with us” (par. 15).

If we were to give the right of free speech to all Americans no matter how controversial, Lawrence believes that doing so would only be putting extensive pressure of those it most affects. He states, “ . . . we are asking blacks and other subordinate groups to bear the burden for the good of all”(par. 16). Forcing other to bear these burdens would only further the need for their own voices to be heard.

Lawrence suggests that speech should be regulated in a way that does not limit it. First, the speech should not invade the general privacy of any student. This meant that speech would not be tolerated in personal spaces such as dorms, restrooms, or any living space. Another regulation was the idea that speech that was intentionally hurtful or disruptive would not be tolerated. Furthermore any public demonstrations would have to give fair warning so that others may produce a counter-argumentation or avoid it entirely.

In paragraph 17, Lawrence takes a different approach to the problem. He suggests that on an individual basis lawyers could bend the rules to contort to the will of their client so that the victim would be amended. This solution on an individual basis would help to cool the flames of racism without opening the floodgates.

As the one reads through this essay, the idea of “we” and “they’ becomes very apparent. Lawrence sets the audience apart from the victims in many cases. He constantly reminds the audience of the assumed idea that they do not personally know the hurt that can be caused from racist speech. Lawrence defines the victims of this racist speech to be blacks and other minority groups. He completely overlooks the idea that even if one is not black or minority (clearly Caucasian) they do not suffer the affects and burdens of racist speech. Words like “Honkey,” “Cracker,” and “Gringo” do have the same affects as those remarks considered racist by any group.

Although seemingly neglectful to many, Lawrence’s intention was to write an essay that would be read by University officials, not community college students. This is clear, given the context in which it was published. Moreover, the overall tone of the essay is very professional and calls out to the hierarchy of America’s universities. The final sentence states the underline tone of the essay: “If we fail in this, the victims of hate speech must rightly assume that we are on the oppressors’ side” (par. 19)

Lawrence creatively draws out many ideas that would help with the problem of racist speech. Yet in doing so would limit the very freedoms in which this country was based upon. The price of losing our freedom of speech is far too great in contrast to the pain that other would have to “bear.” Hurt, is best defined by those it experiencing it, this makes it a very expansive term because it applies to all people. What may hurt one person can bring another pleasure. For example, to one person the idea of religion is peace and to another all it does is leads to war. Everyone must “bear” burdens for the greater good. This country’s very foundations lie within tolerance. We are asked to tolerate other cultures and accept them just as they accept ours. We tolerate drastic inflation to see better days.

Compare freedom to flowers: On Universities all over the United States students can feel at ease when they are walking the campuses because they see the loveliness and splendor of the outdoors, the beautiful flowers, the deep greens of the grass, the smell of dew early in the morning. It comforts the majority of students to know that these beautiful flowers are there. Yet to a few, flowers only mean one thing: Allergies. The sneezing, the coughing, and the headache it’s all because of the flowers. Are schools to remove all the flowers so that those who suffer from allergies will have equal opportunity? While the drastic differences between allergies and racism can be argued, the point remains; people everywhere must learn to tolerate others, whether someone is trying to hurt them or simply practicing their own beliefs. There is one cold hard fact in this world: The only control over this world anyone has is over themselves, if people everywhere stopped trying to control others and worried only about how themselves, the world would be a very different place.

Tolerating Racist Speech: Ensuring everyone’s Freedom


Michael Alvarado

Jennifer Tronti

English 1A: English Composition

March 7, 2003

Work Cited

Lawrence III, Charles R. “On Racist Speech.” Current Issues and Enduring Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking and Argument, with Readings. By Sylvan Barnet and Hugo Bedau. Bedford/St. Martins, 2002. 46-50.

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