“Take down the flag. Take it down now,” writes Ta Nehisi Coates, referring to the fact that the confederate flag flies in the state capital Charleston South Carolina. And since those initial days after the recent mass murder in Charleston there has been a sea change in American public opinion and political calculation. Republicans across the South are passing bills to remove the confederate flag from state property. This is an incredible victory for African Americans, for the civil rights and social justice movements, and for humanity.
Now, that we’ve accomplished removing the confederate flag from state property I think it is time to seriously consider doing something much more drastic, something we should have done a long time ago: make it illegal to display the confederate flag.
Questions of free speech naturally arise in response to any such suggestion but free speech as a political right exists to serve very important function, that of political dissent. The confederate flag is an example of hate speech, plain and simple. There is no important idea that the confederate flag represents that needs to be carefully protected. And it is a form of hate speech that is clearly dangerous. It harms black people every day, and often times the harms are of the greatest kind. It is not just the recent shooting spree but every time an unarmed black person is killed it is related to the fact that we as a society still allow racism to fester. We still allow the confederate flag to be flown. We allow it be a symbol of hatred. We keep hatred alive.
The time has come to categorically reject hatred. We must reject and outlaw the use of the confederate flag. There is a historical precedent here. In the German criminal code section 86a the use of Nazi symbols is declared illegal. This is important symbolically and practically. There is symbolic value in making it clear that legally this country rejects hatred. But there is the practical argument to be made that by allowing the use of the confederate flag to continue to serve as a symbol for hatred we allow hatred to live on and be passed on from generation to generation.
The area of hate speech vs. free speech is a somewhat grey area. But so are many areas in the constitution. We can and should set a clear precedent here in interpreting what forms of speech are legal by making this kind of hatred illegal. With the current focus on the issues of racism brought about by so many recent high profile deaths of unarmed black men we have an opportunity to make significant progress on this issue. Here is an important opportunity and we shouldn’t let it pass. The lives of those who died should not be in vain.
There is much more we can do and should but this would be a great place to start. First and foremost we need to make it clear that we, as a nation, will not tolerate hatred and racism, and we need to make it clear that symbols of hatred are not legally protected under the constitution right of free speech. This would be a significant first step in redressing the untold atrocities that have been committed against African Americans over past several hundred years by the United States of America.